One of the major demographic and social changes of the last four decades has been the dramatic increase in the average age at which Americans first marry, from the early twenties in 1970 to the late twenties today. Delayed marriage in America has helped to bring the divorce rate down since 1980 and increased the economic fortunes of educated women.
But another important consequence of this change is that a majority of young adults under 30 now have their first child before they marry.Many unmarried mothers in their 20s are living with their baby’s father when they give birth. But about two-fifths of those couples break up before their child’s fifth birthday; that’s three times the rate for married couples of their age.
These parents often go on to have another child (or children) with another partner (or partners), creating a family maze of step parents, siblings, grandparents and homes. As a great deal of research has shown, such instability is one of the greatest risks to children’s well-being. It greatly increases the likelihood that they will experience academic, social and emotional problems like poor grades, drug abuse and (perpetuating the cycle) unmarried childbearing.
Children suffer financial, academic and emotional consequences when their parents are not in stable relationships and romantic partners come and go.
All of this raises two questions: Why are young people marrying so much later? And why is that trend so often causing problems for Middle American men and women but not for their college-educated peers?