Modern marriage and parenthood

Nice piece in the Atlantic about the demographics of modern marriage.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I just think the “capstone” idea of marriage is dumb:

First, the cornerstone theory of marriage no longer applies. Culturally, young adults of all social classes and income levels are less likely to think of marriage as the “cornerstone” of their lives—that is, the first thing they do as adults. Instead, people now think of it as a “capstone”— sort of a trophy for having earned a B.A., obtained a job, and generally learned to live on their own for a while. The national marriage age has gradually ticked up as a result. For people who don’t have all the stones leading up to the capstone, though, the entire order of operations gets messed up.

Don’t have the right person to marry till you have accomplished these goals?  Fine.  But the idea that you should not get married until you have achieved a particular set of goals seems silly to me.  If you are mature enough and have the right person, what does it matter if you have the job you want, the degree you want, etc.?  Why not have that person you love fully invested in your effort to achieve those goals.  Okay, my little rant.  I like my cornerstone marriage.  Anyway, as for the interesting demographics:

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … actually reverse that. First comes the baby, then, we’ll see.

For people who don’t have a college degree, having a child in wedlock has become the exception, not the rule. According to a new analysis presented at the Population Association of America, among parents aged 26 to 31 who didn’t graduate from college, 74 percent of the mothers and 70 percent of the fathers had at least one child outside of marriage. Even among mothers who had high school degrees or some college but no B.A., the majority of births occur among moms who are either single or cohabiting…

Second, marriage is increasingly something only educated people do. As my former colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote, the less a man earns these days, the less likely he is to have ever been hitched. College-educated people are increasingly only marrying other college-educated people, and they’re more likely to get married overall. One reason less-educated women are having children out of wedlock is that college-educated men are not interested in marrying them.

“The college-educated young adults can see a good future, where they’re likely to find a good partner, pool two incomes, and they’re willing to wait to have kids till they can do that,” Cherlin said. Meanwhile, the less-educated women “don’t see the possibility of finding partners with good incomes. And many are unwilling to give up the opportunity to have a kid by waiting.”

So, what’s wrong with this?  Actually, it’s bad for kids.  Whether married or cohabitating, kids benefit from a stable home. And they are not getting that from unmarried American moms:

The plurality of the moms in the study who didn’t finish high school before having a kid (36 percent) are actually not single: They’re living with a boyfriend. And that would actually be okay, if those relationships were stable. The trouble is, they’re not.

Unlike in Western Europe, where couples cohabit for years and sometimes decades, often with kids, less-educated Americans tend to rotate in and out of cohabiting relationships as the years wear on. They have children with multiple different partners, creating complex webs of child obligations, step-parents, and half-siblings.

“One might say ‘who cares?’ [about the cohabitation],” Cherlin said. “In fact, the French don’t seem to care. Scandinavian people do the same thing. But our cohabiting relationships aren’t like theirs.”

“I’m not saying everyone has to be married, but it’s best for children if their parents are in stable relationships. It doesn’t have to be marriage, it doesn’t have to be two different genders. The problem is the instability of the kids’ lives as they live through all these comings and goings.”

No great thoughts from me on this, just find it all quite interesting.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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