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Stay Married for Your Grandkids

Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America just came out. Lots of interesting findings about our ever-increasing average age of first marriage.

The central point is the "Great Crossover," which happened in 2000.

Since 1970, the median age at which a woman has her first child has been slowly increasing. (See Figure 9.) I was 18 then and half of all the women the age I would be at my college graduation already had given birth to a first child. Birth control was just becoming widely available, but a lot of it was rather risky. Abortion was illegal in most places. And having a child out of wedlock could get you ostracized from your family or community.

Job ads in the paper were still listed separately for men and women. MIT had an upper limit on the number of women it would allow, just 9% of my class. Women could not count on being able to support even themselves, no less their children. They married. More than half were married before their 21st birthdays. The median age of a first marriage was about 16 or 17 months earlier than the median age of that first child.

But all that changed. Birth control improved. Universities welcomed women as soon as the Baby Boom has passed through and left fewer applicants for the classes they had expanded to make room for us. Jobs in this country quickly required more education and less physical strength. First men without a high school diploma and now men without a college degree find it a lot harder to provide for a family. And they find women willing to live with them without the sort of due diligence that accompanies marriage.

So, the median age at which women first married rose quickly. And in 1989, the median age at first marriage crossed the median age at first child and kept going. But the Great Crossover comes later, in 2000. The crossover for women without a high school education happened before 1970. But it was 30 years later, in 2000, that it hit for the biggest group of women, those with a high school diploma and possibly some college, but no college degree. The researchers call this group "Middle America."

They write: "Think of the Great Crossover this way: it marks the moment at which unmarried motherhood moved from the domain of our poorest populations to become the norm for America's large and already flailing middle class."

Why does this matter to your current or future grandkids? Because the rest of society can help when a small percentage of families are struggling to get by. When it's the norm, it is the norm.

Currently, 58% of the kids in Middle America have unmarried mothers. For the half of them whose parents are cohabiting, the likelihood of a breakup before they are even five years old is three times what it is with married parents. If your grandchildren get caught up in this new norm, they will be competing with kids whose mothers have the earning power of a college degree, 88% of whom are born to married couples.

How can you protect your grandkids' future? Change your son's or daughter's expectations about marriage. Help them see it as the foundation of a good life, not the capstone.

From the report: "[H]aving grown up in a world where rising rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing separated marriage from parenthood, young adults are more inclined to take the view that marriage and parenthood are not necessarily connected, compared to previous generations."

While a marriage without children can certainly be a great one, for those who look forward to both a marriage for their own happiness and fulfillment and to becoming a parent, this new separation can be quite confusing. It is fairly easy to think of marriage and parenthood separately, but only until you have experienced them. Both shape every day of your life, especially in the first five to seven years.

Tales of great step-parents are heart-warming, but it takes a lot more to be a great step-parent than a great parent. Looking for great step-dads for 58% of Middle America's kids is a huge challenge. For most families in this new world, thinking about marriage and children separately means offering less to the kids or doing without a long-lasting, loving relationship for oneself.

What do you want the parents of your future grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) to know about marriage and family? What do you want to show them with your own marriage? Is your marriage in good shape for the message you want to send now and as your nest empties while they are making such important choices about their futures and their children's futures?

Comments

When I was young, we (children of the middle class) were cautioned not to marry too young. We should be more emotionally mature, get better educated, be financially prepared, etc. I don't think anyone who gave that advice back then could have imagined the long-term consequences. And yet now, looking back, it's fairly easy to see how this happened. As individuals we may not be able to stop the tide of social change, but we can certainly work within our own families to increase the chances that our grandchildren will be part of the successful (emotionally and financially) minority.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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