August 10 2009

A Freeze on Families?

Hadley Heath

Almost everyone has been touched by the economic crisis and the sharp rise in unemployment.  Yet students just finishing college face a particular challenge in planning the next few years of their lives.  In fact, 63 percent of American college graduates in the class of 2009 didn't have jobs when they got their diplomas this spring.  A lot of those students had job offers rescinded during the 2008-2009 school year as a result of the job market slump.

Research suggests that an economic downturn affects many decisions people make, not just in relation to their careers, but also in their personal lives.  While this may be a natural reaction to the financial squeeze, it's important for students to recognize that some things-like families-are worth investing in during bad economic times as well as good. Unfortunately, research suggests that's a lesson many miss: During the past few decades, factors such as employment rates, per capita income, and industrial production have been strongly associated with aggregate nuptial rates. 

This economic decline isn't the only factor discouraging young couples from considering marriage.  Today, the pressure for college students to remain single is great.  Young marriage is certainly not considered "sexy," and pop-culture TV shows like "Engaged and Underage" portray young fianc├ęs as unwise and rash.  Although some people do it, getting an engagement ring before a class ring is considered by most modern Americans to be out of order. 

The average marriage age for women in the United States has increased from around 20 in 1950 to 26 at present.  One would expect that with increasing numbers of students going on to graduate school, the average age for marriage would climb even higher.   It's been said that, "graduate school is the new college."  If this is so, more students will likely wait until their masters degrees are in hand before giving their hands in marriage.

While historical data suggests that we can expect a nuptial slowdown due to the economic slowdown, figures from the current wedding industry are encouraging.  They report that weddings are happening at the same rate as recent years, but that couples are spending much less money on getting married. 

That's smart financial planning, since the wise student knows to look past the wedding ceremony to the marriage, which has many financial benefits.  Marriage enables a couple to pool resources-not a bad idea during an economic crisis.  And married graduate students are actually much more likely to complete their degrees and to do so in a timely fashion than single students or cohabitating students. 

Having babies is another story.  According to a U.S.D.A. study, before the age of 2, a child can cost at least $7,800 per year.  When it's trouble enough to take care of the existing members of the family, the idea of bringing new members into the world sounds like a challenge.  For younger couples, this might mean delaying the birth of their first child.  For older couples this might mean that they will stop at the number of children they have currently. 

It is a historical trend that birth rates dip during recessions.  During the Great Depression, birth rates hit a low of 2.1 births per woman, and during economic hard times in the 1970's, birth rates dipped to an all-time American low of 1.7 (and birth control was more accessible in the 1970's too).  Interest in adoption is declining as well, and foster parenting is less popular.

It's not surprising that joblessness and tough times affect people's decision about marriage and family.  Yet our country shouldn't lose sight of the central role of families in our lives.  

Of course it may not make sense to have a child while looking for work, but families can continue to plan for children in the future.  Married people experience generally higher rates of happiness, probably due to the rewards of long-term, committed companionship.  That's something for young, independent singles to keep in mind: Aspects of single-life may certainly bring enjoyment, but families can support each other in good times and bad, which is something money just can't buy.

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