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First come love, then comes marriage,
then the baby carriage? Not any more

Some surprising and counterintuitive results come from a new survey by the National Marriage Project by on marriage and childbearing among twenty-somethings.

The conventional wisdom among well-educated young adults seems to be to postpone marriage until after living together, establishing careers and finding financial footing. As a result, the average marriage age is now 26 for women and 28 for men, although it’s higher—more 30-something–in many metro areas.

But “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” found that there are some benefits to early marriages:   

  • Those who marry in their early 20s have happier marriages (when they last). The study’s authors think it’s because these couples tend to have more sex, and build a life together rather than get their ducks in a row first, they share common memories and family traditions, among other things.
  • Marriage (and early marriage in particular) really helps men. Men who had married in their 20s had the highest level of personal income, though the precise pattern varies by education. Men who have never married have some of the lowest levels of personal income–lower even than those who married before age 20. They think this link to income is because marriage can impart a “responsibility ethic” and therefore they might work harder and smarter.

However, the survey also found that many women are having babies but not getting married.  For the first time marriage and children have become detached; the age at first birth is lower than the age at first marriage. And, this stat is not driven by “16 and Pregnant,” as reality TV would have us believe.   Now 60 percent of first births are to single mothers aged 20 to 29. Teens make up 23 percent of unwed moms.  Why the increase among young adult women, especially those with a few years of college but no degree?

Last week the Brookings Institution held a conference on the “Knot Yet” report and writer/researcher Barbara Ray recapped the discussion among a panel of experts as it applies to unwed mothers:

  • Cultural:  There’s an expectation that a couple will live together before getting married.
  • Economic: Some women institute a “pay to stay” rule, and if a guy can’t pay his share (or more), then there’s no reason to get married.
  • Why do women in these circumstances have children? After all, children aren’t cheap. One reason is that children are meaningful to a woman’s life. As one woman told a researcher, “It’s not like I’m going to ever make the big bucks,” so why wait?
  • Ultimately, it is less a concern that marriage is delayed. The instability of cohabiting relationships in the US, coupled with the material hardship in many single-parent families, means kids suffer.



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