Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Two Decades of Stability and Change in Age at First Union Formation

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Two Decades of Stability and Change in Age at First Union Formation

Article excerpt

The landscape of union formation in the United States has been transforming as Americans wait longer to get married, and the median age at first marriage in the United States is at a historic high point (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Over the past two decades, the median age at first marriagehasincreasedbyat least2years,from 24.1 for women and 26.3 for men in 1991 to 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Even though young women and men are waiting longer to tie the knot, this does not mean they are waiting until their late 20s to form coresidential relationships. Today, the majority (66%) of young adults have spent some time in a cohabiting union (Manning, 2013). About two-fifths (41%) of women who first married in the early 1980s cohabited prior to entering marriage versus the two thirds (66%) of first marriages today that are preceded by cohabitation (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2011;Manning,2013).Althoughmuchisknown about the prevalence of cohabitation, relatively little attention has been paid to the median age at first cohabitation and changing trends over time.

Drawing on the 1987-1988 National Sur- vey of Families and Households (NSFH; http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/nsfh/) and four cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG; http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg.htm), we assessed change in the proportion forming unions and median age at union formation with specific attention to the median age at first cohabitation. The fundamental question we addressed was this: As the median age at first marriage has increased, how have the median ages at first cohabitation and first union forma- tion changed? On the basis of arguments that family change is not uniform for all Americans, reflecting a growing social divide in family life (Cherlin, 2013; McLanahan, 2004), we expected greater shifts in the timing of marriage than cohabitation among the most disadvantaged respondents.

BACKGROUND

The rise in the median age at first marriage is well documented, but little is known about whether there has been an accompanying change in the median ages at first cohabitation and first union formation. Are Americans waiting longer to form any union, or are they just waiting longer to form marital unions?

One reason the median ages at cohabitation or union formation have received little attention is that there are few data sources available to document these shifts. The median age at first marriage is often calculated using indirect methods as specified by Shryock, Siegel, and Larmon (1973). These methods require knowledge about the proportion of the population that has been married at specific age ranges. This information has been available for some time from U.S. census data as well as Current Population Survey (CPS) data. These indirectmethodscannotbeusedtoassessmedian age at cohabitation because the Census and CPS do not include indicators of the proportion of the population that has cohabited at specific age groups. Starting in 2000, the Census included "unmarried partner" as a household membership category but did not obtain a critical piece of information: the proportion of the population that has ever cohabited. Furthermore, directly assessing changes in the median age at first cohabitation requires survey data that directly ascertain the age at first cohabitation.

In response to the growth in cohabitation, starting in the late 1980s a few nationally representative surveys, such as the NSFH and NSFG, expanded the roster of household rela- tionships to include cohabitation. These and now many additional surveys have included direct questions about the start and end dates of cohab- itation, akin to measures of marriage. Thus, using nationally representative survey data, we were able to assess changes in direct reports of ages at marriage as well as cohabitation.

On the basis of data collected 25 years ago in the 1987-1988 NSFH, the median age at first cohabitation was 21 for women (Child Trends, 2006), but little is known about the median age at first cohabitation today. …

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