Baumgardner: First comes marriage? Not always, study says

Baumgardner: First comes marriage? Not always, study says

April 14th, 2013 By Julie Baumgardner in Life Entertainment

Knot Yet, a report released this month 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 nation as a whole concerning two troublesome trends:

• The age at which men and women marry is 27 for women and 29 for men -- historic heights.

• The median age at which women have children is lower than the median age of their first marriage. Delayed marriage has elevated the socioeconomic status of women, especially more privileged women, allowing them to reach life goals and reduce the odds of divorce. However, while they are marrying later, women have not put off childbearing at the same pace. For women as a whole, the median age at first birth, 25.7, falls before the median age of first marriage, 26.5.

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

This phenomenon called "the crossover" happened decades ago for the least economically privileged. However, for middle-America women (those with 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 because 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, compared to children born to married parents. College-educated Americans and their kids are more likely to enjoy the benefits of marriage while middle class and poor Americans and their kids are more likely to pay the cost of delayed marriage.

Researchers believe that, for the sake of today's 20-somethings and their children, we should bring marriage and childbearing back into sync. Becoming a parent should be more intentional. These relationships should be embedded 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.

While marriage is not for everyone, decoupling marriage and parenthood is worrisome. It fuels economic and educational inequality, not to mention instability. The new report proposes a comprehensive approach encompassing economic, educational, civic and cultural initiatives to help 20-somethings figure out new ways to put the baby carriage after marriage.

The marriage-then-parenthood sequence is not a guarantee for success nor is going out of sequence a recipe for failure. However, there is a growing disconnect between sexual activity, parental intentions and marriage that needs to be addressed. A majority of young adults say non-marital childbearing is acceptable and seem unaware of the toll it can take on their lives and society. Too many young adults are drifting unintentionally into parenthood before they have a plan or a partner who will enable them to give their children the life and family they deserve.

Contact Julie Baumgardner at julieb@firstthings.org.