Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Differing Pathways to Family Formation among Young Adults
In the recent past, the maturational steps of leaving home and marrying were tightly sequenced.37 During the middle years of the twentieth century, young people left home to marry and have children as soon as they had the wherewithal to do so, and not infrequently before they had adequate resources and secure employment.38 Today the process of family formation (entering unions and having children) has become less orderly and more protracted.39 The onset of sexual relations and marriage today is typically separated by at least five years, and often more. Cohabitation, and sometimes parenthood, occurs in the intervening years. Marriage has become a culminating event, still indicating social maturity, but social maturity increasingly occurs well before marriage.40
The process of family formation today, more than in the recent past, is shaped by education and employment opportunities.41 And now, more than ever, the sequence and timing of family formation in the United States differs sharply by socioeconomic status. Family formation has long differed in timing and sequence (for example, pregnancy or parenthood before marriage) between poor and less-educated youth and better-off youth who manage to complete college.42 But now, despite consistent evidence that young adults, regardless of social class, continue to endorse the importance of marriage and parenthood, there is a growing perception among less-advantaged youth that marriage is less attainable.43
Nonetheless, youth and parents from less-advantaged families continue to favor an earlier departure from the home than do those of more advantaged means.44 Advantaged youth are far more likely to attend a residential college and possibly graduate school (which the Census Bureau classifies as still living with parents), enjoying a period of semi-autonomy that may or may not include part-time work and cohabitation. By contrast, youth from lower-income families, if they attend college at all, are likely to do so while still residing with their parents.45
Complicating the home-leaving process for lower-income youth, particularly women, is the growing likelihood of non-marital parenthood. Forty percent of all first births now take place outside marriage, and almost all are to young women who have not completed college. Although rates of teenage pregnancy and childbearing have declined during the past fifteen years (until 2006, that is), nearly half of all young adults with a high school education or less become parents in their late teens and early twenties.46 These pregnancies are generally unplanned, and relatively few of the parents are fully prepared to take on the economic responsibilities of supporting a family. Data from the Fragile Families Study, a long-term examination of family formation among largely young, largely poor urban couples who are having a child, reveal the fluidity of the relations between the partners over time.47 Although a substantial minority of nonmarital births to young adults is to couples who are cohabiting at the time of the pregnancy, these unions often are ephemeral, only rarely resulting in marriage, even though most young parents in the Fragile Families Study profess a desire to wed eventually.48
In the past, most of these young parents would have wed before or shortly after the birth of the child. Today, however, they perceive, correctly given the evidence, that the benefits of a hasty marriage are few. Many of the fathers lack job experience, are beset by mental health problems, or have been involved in the criminal justice system.49 For economic and social support, young mothers often turn to their families rather than to their partners, who cannot provide steady assistance. In a long-term study of teenage mothers in Baltimore, I found a deep pessimism, especially among the parents of the pregnant teens, about the wisdom of relying on the men who fathered their children. As one mother told her daughter, "It don't do your child no good if his father can't take care of him."50
In recent decades, a growing number of low-income and less-educated white and Hispanic couples have joined African Americans in forming families before they are economically independent.51 Thus, the traditional ordering of school, employment, home-leaving, and family formation has broken down for an ever larger share of youth growing up in less than advantaged circumstances. Compared with the relatively weak bonds established between sexual partners and even prospective parents, bonds with natal families among these young adults are strong, particularly their reliance on families for economic assistance and practical help in childrearing. In the Baltimore study, it was common for young parents to remain at home and coordinate child care with their parents. And many of the young children in turn regard their grandmothers as a, if not the, primary parent figure in their lives. Fathers often continue to see their children, but over time, many become shadowy figures in their lives, creating further difficulties in the early adult years.52
Among disadvantaged African Americans, marriage often takes place, if it does at all, long after the onset of childbearing and following a series of cohabitations. This pattern is becoming common as well in other disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities, though considerable variation exists by ethnic and national origin. A study I conducted with Rachel Margolis found that this pattern of delayed marriage after childbearing is emerging among less-educated whites as well, suggesting that socioeconomic status is linked to the decision to postpone marriage even when childbearing occurs.53
Youth from disadvantaged circumstances with limited prospects for a well-paid job or a partner with solid earnings increasingly opt for cohabitation, which has become a weak form of matrimony. More than ever, cohabitation provides a temporary basis for childbearing and childrearing, but its major appeal is that it does not require a high level of commitment or even contentment. Nonetheless, as noted earlier, for most, marriage remains the ultimate or preferred status, a symbol of economic success often deferred long after parenthood.54
The contrast in how college-educated young adults (most of whom are also from more affluent families) form families is striking. In-depth interviews with nearly 500 young adults in four sites conducted by the Mac-Arthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood show that most college-educated young adults complete their education and gain some work experience before marrying and certainly before having children.55 Like their less-educated counterparts, these well-educated couples also cohabit for lengthy periods before marrying, but such relationships typically do not result in parenthood, presumably because of more reliable contraceptive practice, sometimes backed up by abortion.56 It is still quite rare for affluent couples to have a child outside of marriage, although a few elect to have children in common-law or consensual unions.57
The search and commitment process among highly educated young adults provides time to test the durability of relationships.58 Acquiring the "marriage mentality," as some better-educated young people explained in in-depth interviews, requires time and experience that is often acquired by living together.59 In short, the pattern of forming marriages and deciding whether and when to have children has become more deliberate among well-educated young adults. This slower pace may be paying off: evidence is accumulating that marital dissolution among the highly educated has declined over time.60
Researchers know far less about the family formation patterns of young adults who grow up in families with modest resources, many of whom obtain some college or complete an associate's degree. There is likely more variety among the middle stratum in the timing and sequence of marriage and parenthood. It would be useful to investigate how these young adults manage both to move away from home and to establish their own families. They face some of the hazards of family formation experienced by low-income and less-educated youth, such as unplanned parenthood, but they possess greater resources to manage more stable unions.
Family formation in the United States today differs not only by social class but also by geographical region. Throughout large parts of the South and Midwest, young adults still follow the early marriage patterns of previous generations, dictated in part by traditional and religious values.61 To a considerable degree, these values collide with the economic and emotional realities of contemporary life that make marriage a more difficult undertaking than it was a half-century ago. At that time couples were perhaps more willing to put up with less-than-perfect unions because they were unprepared or unwilling to divorce. At least one study finds that young adults sort themselves according to who remains in the community and who leaves to get higher education or seek work. The less-educated "stayers" often subscribe to an early schedule of family formation while those who move to urban areas or out of state adopt a pattern of later marriage and parenthood.62
The family formation patterns, not to mention co-residence patterns, of gay young adults largely remain unexplored by researchers. Over time, there is reason to expect that enough data will accumulate to permit a direct examination of this hitherto invisible segment of the young adult population. It is an open question whether they adopt the same timing for forming lasting relationships and, now, increasingly entering parenthood, as their heterosexual counterparts.