July 21 2014

Knot Yet: Millennials and Marriage

Patrice J. Lee

Millennials are postponing marriage for economic and cultural reasons – no new news. However, delaying marriage is creating two different outcomes for those who are college educated versus those who are not. The implications for society are clear as unwed parents struggle with economic insecurity at a greater rate.

The age at which men and women marry first time is at historic heights.  According to Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America, a new report released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the average marriage age is 29 for men and 27 for women and 33 percent of 25-year-old women are or have been married. The percentage of women in their 20s that is married has declined by more than 20 percent since the 1970s. The age at which women have children is also increasing, but not nearly as quickly as the delay in marriage. The Marriage Project finds that this has both advantages and drawbacks.

Women who wait until after 30 to marry enjoy higher incomes especially as they achieve educational and career goals by the time they marry. Compare $50,416 for those ladies over 30 and married with a degree to $22,286 for those married with just a high school diploma or some college.

Delayed marriage also contributed to declining divorce rates, according to this report, since the early 1980s. Couples who marry in their early twenties and especially their teens are more likely to divorce than couples who marry later.

Compared to their married counterparts, unmarried twentysomethings (especially singles) are more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives. For example the report finds that 33 percent of single women and 29 percent of cohabiting women are “highly satisfied,” compared to 47 percent of married women. It’s even starker for men: 35 percent of single and cohabiting men report they are “highly satisfied” compared to 52 percent of married men. There may be other factors at play here which this report neglects such as the stress of working long hours or pursuing degrees that aren't related to whether someone has a spouse.

The most troubling costs are those associated with single parenthood as in this difficult job market – it can lead to economic insecurity.

Here’s more from this report:

Although many men and women have been postponing marriage to their late twenties and beyond, they have not put off childbearing at the same pace. In fact, for women as a whole, the median age at first birth (25.7) now falls before the median age at first marriage (26.5), a phenomenon we call “The Great Crossover”…:

·         By age 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married; by the time they turn 30, about two-thirds of American women have had a baby, typically out of wedlock. Overall, 48 percent of first births are to unmarried women, most of them in their twenties.

·         This crossover happened decades ago among the least economically privileged. The crossover among “Middle American” women—that is, women who have a high-school degree or some college—has been rapid and recent. By contrast, there has been no crossover for college-educated women, who typically have their first child more than two years after marrying.

·         The crossover is cause for concern primarily because children born outside of marriage—including to cohabiting couples—are much more likely to experience family instability, school failure, and emotional problems. In fact, children born to cohabiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents.

Marriage has been the bedrock of our society, but increasingly for Millennials it’s a “crowning achievement” rather than the cornerstone of adulthood. It’s what you do after most or all of the other ducks have been lined up in a row.

Ours is a generation that was told to focus on education and career first then everything else will follow. We no longer look to marriage to provide economic security as we are able to independently provide for our own needs. Beyonce and Destiny’s Child sing it well in “Independent Women.”

And then there’s the economy. In the short term, the most recent recession has prompted young people to delay tying the knot. Millions of young people are underemployed, unemployed, or have dropped out of the job market entirely. Beyond that, structural changes in our economy since the 1907s have shifted it to a knowledge-driven economy that award higher skilled and educated workers. As the report notes, jobs that support a middle-class lifestyle require more training, and many more years of it, often in the form of college.

But more training presents another challenge: student loan debt. It hangs like a millstone around the neck of our generation.

We Millennials are a generation that has reached adulthood and is shaping economic, cultural, social, and public norms and activity. The question is how will our nation adapt to these changes?

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