The Cost of Delayed Marriage

These things are key to know.
By Julie Baumgardner
August 28, 2017

Knot Yet, a report released in April 2013 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies, The Relate Institute and The National Marriage Project at The University of Virginia, explores the positive and negative consequences for 20-something women, men, their children and the entire nation concerning two troublesome trends:

  • The age at which men and women marry, now at historic heights – 27 for women and 29 for men; and
  • The age at which women have children.

Delayed marriage has elevated the socioeconomic status of women.

This is especially true more-privileged women, as it allows them to reach their life goals. It has also reduced the odds of divorce for U.S. couples who are now marrying.

But although they are marrying later, women have not put off childbearing at the same pace. The median age at first birth for women, 25.7, falls before the median age of first marriage, 26.5.

  • By age 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married. Overall, 48 percent of first births are to unmarried women, most of them in their 20s.

This phenomenon, called “the crossover,” happened decades ago for the least-economically privileged. However, for middle-class American women (those who have a high school degree or some college), the crossover has been recent and rapid. There has been no crossover for college-educated women, who typically have their first child more than two years after marrying.

The “crossover” is concerning. But why?

  • Children born outside of marriage are much more likely to experience family instability, school failure and emotional problems.
  • Children born to cohabiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up than children born to married parents.
  • Middle-class and poor Americans and their kids are more likely to pay the cost of delayed marriage in America, and
  • College-educated Americans and their kids are more likely to enjoy the benefits of marriage.

Does Sequence Matter?

Researchers believe that for the sake of today’s 20-somethings and their children, syncing marriage and childbearing would be beneficial. Becoming a parent requires intentionality, and relationships flourish within what Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill call “the success sequence”:  Complete at least a high school education, get a job, marry and then have children – in that order.

Marriage is clearly not for everyone, but the decoupling of marriage and parenthood is deeply worrisome. The “crossover” fuels economic and educational inequality, not to mention instability. Knot Yet proposes a comprehensive approach encompassing economic, educational, civic and cultural initiatives to help 20-somethings find new ways to put the baby carriage after marriage.

The sequence of marriage – then parenthood – is not a guarantee for success. And, going out of sequence is not a recipe for failure. However, there is clearly a growing disconnect between sexual activity, parental intentions and marriage.

Most young adults believe non-marital childbearing is no big deal. They seem unaware of the toll that it can take on their lives and society. Unfortunately, the research shows that when people become parents before having a plan or a partner, children stand to lose the most.

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