The tendency of young adults to put off marriage has taken a harsh toll on Americans without college degrees, according to a new study by a group of family researchers.
The study, “Knot Yet,” belies the mythology popularized on shows such as “Girls,” with characters spending their 20s establishing careers and relationships before deciding to settle down and have children.
While that scenario portrays the experiences of many college-educated Americans, women with only high-school degrees or a year or two of college are more likely to have their first child while living with a man who struggles to find a stable job that pays enough to support a family, the study said.
The study was conducted by researchers for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and the Relate Institute at Brigham Young University. It is part of a growing body of research into the impact of delayed marriage as the median age when people marry has risen to 27 for women and 29 for men. Those ages represent historic highs.
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For college-educated men and women, delaying marriage has paid off — literally. By enabling them to finish school and get their careers established, these younger adults are investing in themselves for the long haul.
The return on this investment is most significant for women: Those who finish college and get married after turning 30 earn $18,152 more per year, on average, than women who marry in their 20s or teens. Even women who are high-school graduates but don’t finish college earn $4,052 more per year, on average, than women who marry when they’re younger.
The study found a large educational and class divide. College-educated women typically have their first child two years after marrying. The high-school graduates as a group have their first child two years before they marry.
The study found that 58 percent of first births to women who have graduated only from high school are out of wedlock.
“Everyone is pushing marriage to their late 20s and early 30s, the Walmart cashier as well as the Wells Fargo executive,” said W. Bradley Wilcox, of the University of Virginia, one of the authors of the study. “But the Wells Fargo executive is getting married in her late 20s and having her first child in her early 30s. The Walmart checkout guy is having his first kid in his early 20s, and often marries in his late 20s, often to someone who is not the mother of his first child.”
Data suggest that children born to unmarried parents are at several disadvantages compared with their peers with married parents. Citing research in “The Marriage-Go-Round” by Andrew Cherlin and a journal produced by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution called “The Future of Children,” the report says that children suffer financial, academic and emotional consequences when their parents are not in stable relationships and romantic partners come and go.
“Marriage delayed, then, is the centerpiece of two scripts that help create two different outcomes and two different life chances for the next generation,” the study authors wrote. “For the college-educated third of our population, it has been a success. For the rest, not just the truly disadvantaged but large swaths of Middle America, not so much.”
Among the report’s other conclusions:
• Childless men and women who are still single in their 20s are less satisfied with their lives than their married counterparts. Men, in particular, are more likely to “drink too much.”
• Single parents in their 20s have “high rates of depression and dissatisfaction,” though slightly less so if these parents are living together. Either way, they’re worse off than married parents in the same age group.
• Delaying marriage has helped reduce the U.S. divorce rate, which peaked in the early 1980s. The older couples are when they get married, the more mature and financially secure they are, two factors that translate into a lower risk of divorce. Overall, an estimated 40 percent of marriages end up in divorce, down from 50 percent 30 years ago.
The “Knot Yet” study says economic and cultural forces are responsible for current attitudes toward marriage.
The decline in real wages for men lacking college degrees has eroded the economic foundations of marriage. And young adults, many of them children of divorce, are inclined to view marriage less as a cornerstone to their future lives than a capstone to put in place after they have built a foundation, the study said.
“Progressives stress the economics; conservatives stress the culture,” said Wilcox. “We say both matter. They both are undercutting the viability of marriage for young adults today.”
Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, said the trend for working-class Americans to delay marriage and have children before they marry echoes behavior that was noticed in lower-income people several decades ago. As did the “Knot Yet” study, Williams blamed it on the destigmatization of out-of-wedlock births and shrinking blue-collar wages.
“The people who used to have good-paying union jobs, those jobs are going, going gone,” she said. “As the missing middle was robbed of financial stability, it also has been robbed of stable family relationships, exactly as happened to the poor.”
Americans of all classes are more willing to hold out for the ideal, she said, even if it makes the goal more difficult to attain.
“Marriage is linked with the white-picket fence in your head,” she said. “When they can’t get the white-picket fence, and a certain level of stability,” they defer marriage and have higher rates of nonmarital births. That in turn fuels more poverty, and takes them further away from the white-picket fence.”