Millennials are not conformists. They march to their own beat and have taken an untraditional route to marriage and the family by abandoning or delaying it. Over the past half century, divorce has doubled, marriage rates have plummeted to all-time lows, and single- parent households have more than tripled, leaving the family unit in shambles and many Millennials skeptical.
Unlike previous generations where marriage was the starting point of adulthood, Millennials have chosen to pursue education and then a career over the more traditional path of marriage, career, and then children. This obviously has raised concerns with social scientists and marriage advocates; however, things might be changing. According to a recent Pew Research report, 1.3 million Millennial women gave birth for the first time in 2015, raising the total number of U.S. births in this generation to 16.2 million.
While Pew notes that Millennials “now account for the vast majority of annual U.S. births,” not all of those births occurred within married-parent families. According to Pew researcher Gretchen Livingston, about 43 percent of the 1.3 million births to Millennial women were to unmarried mothers. This reinforces the fact that Millennials are often a walking contraction: Millennials want children, but dismiss marriage, which helps explain why nearly half of the Millennial moms who gave birth in 2015 were not married.
An earlier study by Pew reports that 52 percent of Millennials believe that having children is one of the most important goals in their lives, yet only 30 percent say that marriage is a lifetime goal. And many are cohabiting instead. A survey of Millennial women revealed that an astonishing 59 percent feel that “living together” is a legitimate lifestyle, and a majority say it is okay to remain unmarried even if they have children. Among Millennials, cohabitation has earned the reputation of being equal to marriage.
The problem is that research says the contrary. As Oren Cass wrote in the National Review:
Children born into the lowest income quintile have almost exactly equal chances of arriving in any of the five income quintiles as adults. However, there is only one catch: Their parents must be and stay married. Children whose parents never marry face poor prospects.
In fact, cohabiting households are second only to single-mother households when it comes to child poverty. One study found that children in married-couple households have a poverty rate of 11 percent, compared to a 47 percent poverty rate for children in cohabiting households.
However, the adverse effects that cohabiting unions have on children reach far deeper than just the pocketbook, affecting children’s education, social, and psychological outcomes. One reason for this is that cohabiting families are not as stable as married families. A study on Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing found that “nearly half of parents who are cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth break up within five years, compared to only 20 percent of married parents.”
Children raised by cohabiting parents are also more likely to use drugs, suffer from depression, and drop out of school than children from married-parent families. As the National Marriage Project reported, children born to married, well-educated parents:
are increasingly likely to have the same advantages when they become adults, graduating from four-year colleges and establishing marriages that are, on average, more stable and of better quality than in the recent past. But those born to fragmented families are increasingly likely to repeat their parents’ patterns and to experience the heartache, hardship, and risks that result.
Unfortunately, many Millennials do not link child well-being to having a healthy and thriving marriage, perhaps, in part, because healthy marriages have not been modeled for the Millennial generation. While most Millennial parents want to give their children a better life than what they received, choosing to cohabit rather than marry puts their future children at a statistical disadvantage that could last generations.
Millennials are passionate about promoting social causes that advocate on behalf of the poor, disenfranchised, oppressed, and the marginalized. Ironically, Millennials who abandon the relevancy of marriage by cohabiting or abandoning marriage altogether are doing anything but giving their children a future that is equal, just, or fair. In order for more Millennials to choose married parenthood over cohabiting parenthood, Millennials must know the facts about the risks of unmarried births for children, the current narrative about marriage must be changed, and couples must be equipped for healthy marriages that unravel the strings of family instability and poverty for future generations.
Dr. Jennifer Murff is president of Millennials for Marriage.