Ideals of Marriage and Parenthood Adrift: New Trends Suggest Sea-Change

It may come as no surprise, but new research proves that younger generations of Americans hold new and evolving impressions about marriage and family, compared to those of their parents. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, younger adults see less of a moral stigma when it comes to cohabitation without marriage and out-of-wedlock births. Today, nearly four out of ten U.S. births are to unmarried women. At the same time, nearly half of all adults between 30 and 50 years old have spent a portion of their lives living together without being married.

The researchers note that there has been “a distinct weakening of the link between marriage and parenthood,” as evidenced by the finding that just 41 percent of Americans say children are “very important” to a successful marriage, compared to 65 percent who agreed in a 1990 survey. In fact, children now rank eighth out of nine items associated with successful marriage – falling behind “sharing household chores,” “good housing,” “adequate income,” “happy sexual relationship,” and “faithfulness.” This survey also notes that a majority of Americans believe the main purpose of marriage is “mutual happiness and fulfillment” rather than “the bearing and raising of children.”

In spite of prevailing assumptions, this increase in nonmarital childbearing is not just about unwed teenage mothers: the Pew study notes that teen pregnancy rates actually have been falling for decades. Rather, the increase in nonmarital births relates to the growing population of women in their 20s, 30s, and older who may forgo marriage, but still have children. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of those new mothers are living with their children’s fathers. This is a strong contrast to the early 1990s, when nearly one-third of nonmarital births were to cohabitating women.

Meanwhile, those surveyed find these trends to be dissatisfactory, with 71 percent saying the rise in nonmarital births is a “big problem” and 69 percent noting that a child needs both a mother and father to ensure a happy childhood.

Although the results reveal that people in nontraditional marital and parenting situations often have attitudes aligning with their behaviors, they do not suggest that they place less value than others on marriage as a pathway to personal happiness. In fact, never-married parents and cohabiters were more skeptical that a person “can lead a complete and fulfilled life if he or she remains single.” The researchers suggest that this could reflect the feeling that these groups may be less satisfied with their current lives than others. “For many of them, marriage appears to represent an ideal – albeit an elusive, unrealized one,” the report states.

There are limits to the public’s preference for the traditional mother-and-father dynamic. Sixty-seven percent of Americans say children are better off if parents who are “very unhappy with each other” get a divorce. Further, by a margin of 58 percent to 38 percent, more Americans believe “divorce is painful, but preferable to maintaining an unhappy marriage” than believe that “divorce should be avoided except for in an extreme situation.”

The research highlights a discrepancy in social values: divorce rates are on the decline, despite greater public acceptance, while the rates of nonmarital births have continued to rise amid steadfast public disapproval. The Pew Research Center also offers data breakdowns by age, religiosity, political conservativism, race, ethnicity, and gender. Click here to read the entire report.