Decline in marriage and need for purposeful parenthood

Isabel Sawhill

Chances are you know people who are still getting married. But it’s getting rarer, especially among the youngest generation and those who are less educated.

We used to assume people would marry before having children. But that’s no longer the norm. Half of all children born to women under 30 are born out of wedlock. The proportion is even higher among those without a college degree.

Most of today’s young adults don’t feel ready to marry in their early 20s. Many have not completed their educations; others are trying to get established in a career; and many grew up with parents who divorced and are reluctant to make a commitment or take the risks associated with a legally binding tie.

But these young people are still involved in romantic relationships. Any stigma associated with premarital sex disappeared a long time ago. The result: a lot of drifting into unplanned pregnancies and births to unmarried women and their partners, with the biggest problems now concentrated among those in their 20s rather than in their teens. (The teen birth rate has actually declined since the early 1990s.)

These trends are especially problematic for the many children being born outside marriage. Cohabiting relationships are highly unstable. Most will have split before the child reaches age 5.

Social scientists who have studied the resulting growth of single-parent families have shown that the children in these families don’t fare as well as children raised in two-parent families. They are four or five times as likely to be poor; they do less well in school; and they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors as adolescents. Taxpayers end up footing the bill for the social assistance that many of these families need.

The fact that well-educated young adults are still marrying is a positive sign and a reason for hope. On the other hand, the decline in marriage and rise in single parenthood has been dramatic and the economic and cultural transformations behind these trends may be difficult to reverse.

What may matter even more than marriage is creating stable and committed relationships between two mature adults who want and are ready to be parents before having children. That means reducing the very large fraction of births to young unmarried adults that occur before these young people say they are ready for parenthood.

Among single women under the age of 30, 73 percent of all pregnancies are, according to the woman herself, either unwanted or badly mistimed. Some of these women will go on to have an abortion but 60 percent of all of the babies born to this group are unplanned.

We need to combine new cultural messages about the importance of committed relationships and purposeful childbearing with new ways of helping young adults avoid accidental pregnancies.

Marriage is in trouble and, however desirable, will be difficult to restore. But we can at least ensure that casual relationships outside of marriage don’t produce children before their biological parents are ready to take on one of the most difficult social tasks any of us ever undertakes: raising a child. Accidents happen; a child shouldn’t be one of them.

Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.” She wrote this for InsideSources.com.