Academic journal article The Future of Children

American Marriage in the Early Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article The Future of Children

American Marriage in the Early Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt


During the past century the U.S. family system has seen vast changes--in marriage and divorce rates, cohabitation, childbearing, sexual behavior, and women's work outside the home. Andrew Cherlin reviews these historic changes, noting that marriage remains the most common living arrangement for raising children, but that children, especially poor and minority children, are increasingly likely to grow up in single-parent families and to experience family instability.

Cherlin describes the economic and cultural forces that have transformed family life. Job market changes have drawn married women into the work force and deprived less-educated men of the blue-collar jobs by which they traditionally supported their families. And effective contraception and legalized abortion have eroded the norm of marriage before childbearing.

Cherlin notes that sentiment in favor of marriage appears to be stronger in the United States than in other developed countries. The share of U.S. adults who are likely to marry is higher, but so is the share likely to divorce. U.S. children are also more likely to live in single-parent families at some time in their childhood.

Although nearly all Americans, whether poor or well-to-do, hold to marriage as an ideal, today marriage is increasingly optional. To a greater extent than ever before, individuals can choose whether to form a family on their own, in a cohabiting relationship, or in a marriage. Given U.S. patterns of swift transitions into and out of marriage and high rates of single parenthood, American policymakers eager to promote marriage are unlikely to be able to raise U.S. family stability to levels typical of other developed countries. Consequently, a family policy that relies too heavily on marriage will not help the many children destined to live in single-parent and cohabiting families--many of them poor--during their formative years. Assistance must be directed to needy families, regardless of their household structure. Policymakers must craft a careful balance of marriage-based and marriage-neutral programs to provide adequate support to American children.

The decline of American marriage has been a favorite theme of social commentators, politicians, and academics over the past few decades. Clearly the nation has seen vast changes in its family system--in marriage and divorce rates, cohabitation, childbearing, sexual behavior, and women's work outside the home. Marriage is less dominant as a social institution in the United States than at any time in history. Alternative pathways through adulthood--childbearing outside of marriage, living with a partner without ever marrying, living apart but having intimate relationships--are more acceptable and feasible than ever before. But as the new century begins, it is also clear that despite the jeremiads, marriage has not faded away. In fact, given the many alternatives to marriage now available, what may be more remarkable is not the decline in marriage but its persistence. What is surprising is not that fewer people marry, but rather that so many still marry and that the desire to marry remains widespread. Although marriage has been transformed, it is still meaningful. In this article I review the changes in American marriage, discuss their causes, compare marriage in the United States with marriage in the rest of the developed world, and comment on how the transformation of marriage is likely to affect American children in the early twenty-first century.

Changes in the Life Course

To illuminate what has happened to American marriage, I begin by reviewing the great demographic changes of the past century, including changes in age at marriage, the share of Americans ever marrying, cohabitation, nonmarital births, and divorce.

Recent Trends

Figure 1 shows the median age at marriage--the age by which half of all marriages occur--for men and women from 1890 to 2002. …

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