Nearly Half of All First Births in America Out of Wedlock, Study Says

The age at which men and women in America marry is now at historic heights, and as a result the number of children born out of wedlock has also increased, says a new study by a group of family researchers, who have found that 48 percent of all first births are happening outside of marriage.

On average, women are marrying at age 27, and men at 29 – and the average age is still climbing due to economic and cultural reasons. At the same time, the age at which women have children is also increasing, but not nearly as quickly as the delay in marriage, according to the report, "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America," released Friday by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and collaborators.

In fact, for women as a whole, the median age of first birth, 25.7, now falls before the median age at first marriage, 26.5. The report called the phenomenon "The Great Crossover."

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While delayed marriage has helped to bring the divorce rate down since 1980 and increased the economic fortunes of educated women, another major consequence of this change is that a majority of young parents under 30 now have their first child before they marry.

By age 25, 44 percent of women have given birth, while only 38 percent have married, the researchers have analyzed, noting that 48 percent of all first births are now outside of marriage.

Among the least economically privileged, the report says, this "crossover happened decades ago as part of a dramatic – and well-publicized – rise in unmarried pregnancy." But the crossover among "Middle American" women – those among the 54 percent of Americans who have a high school diploma and perhaps some college education, but not a four-year degree – has been rapid and recent.

"The Great Crossover 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," said report co-author Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

"The biggest downside to delayed marriage in America is that many young adults are now putting the baby carriage before marriage," said co-author and National Marriage Project director Bradford Wilcox. "What they often don't realize is that children born outside of marriage are significantly more likely to be exposed to a revolving cast of caretakers and the social, emotional and financial fallout associated with family instability and single parenthood."

The report also identifies reasons why the average age of marriage is increasing.

Good jobs for less-educated Americans have withered on the knowledge-economy vine, the study says. Jobs that do support a middle-class lifestyle require more training and education, so young adults are taking longer to finish their education and stabilize their work lives.

Culture is also playing a role. Young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a "capstone" rather than a "cornerstone" – that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood, the report points out.

But this capstone model is not working well for Middle Americans, the report says. One widely discussed reason for this is that Middle American men are having difficulty finding decent-paying, stable work that can support a family. The capstone model is silent about the connection between marriage and childbearing.

"This leaves young adults occupying a foggy middle ground, somewhere between actively seeking parenthood and actively preventing pregnancy," said report co-author Kelleen Kaye, senior director of research at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "The vast majority of unmarried 20-somethings say it's very important to avoid pregnancy right now, but a third also say they would be at least a little happy if they did get pregnant. It's not surprising then, that among unmarried 20-somethings, more than 1.3 million pregnancies each year are unplanned, as reported by the women themselves. The capstone marriage model poses definite challenges to efforts aimed at preventing unplanned pregnancy."

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