The picture of the twentysomething years painted by the pop culture—think Girls or The Mindy Project—suggests that young adults use their 20s as a kind of “odyssey years” to bridge adolescence and adulthood. Judging by Hannah, Adam, and Mindy, the 20s are about getting educated and established at work, enjoying drinks and coffee with friends, trying your hand at relationships, all before the press of adult responsibilities sets in.
This picture is largely accurate for college-educated young adults as we show in our new report, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” and it’s a picture that ends up relatively rosy, even if the 20s have difficult moments. These highly educated adults have embraced a “capstone” model of marriage that typically leads them to put off marriage until they have had a chance to establish themselves professionally, personally, and relationship-wise. This capstone model is paying big dividends to the college-educated: Their divorce rate is low, and their income is high. We find, for instance, that college-educated women who postpone marriage to their 30s earn about $10,000 more than their college-educated sisters who marry in their mid-20s.
But one major and more dystopian feature of actual contemporary twentysomething life is conspicuously absent from small-screen depictions: parenthood. Hard as it might be for Hannah and Mindy—and their viewers—to imagine, most American women without college degrees have their first child in their 20s. These young women and their partners—who make up about two-thirds of twentysomething adults in the United States—are logging more time at the diaper aisle of the local supermarket than at the local bar.
This would not be such a big deal except for the fact that many of these twentysomethings are drifting into parenthood, becoming moms and dads with partners they don’t think are fit to marry or at least ready to marry. For instance, almost 1 in 2 babies—47 percent, to be precise—born to twentysomething women are now born to unmarried parents. In fact, twentysomething women now have the majority of children outside of marriage, which—given that 30 is the new 20—makes them the new teen moms.
The reality is that children born to unmarried twentysomething parents are three times more likely to grow up with a disorienting carousel of adults coming and going in the home, compared to children born to married parents. This kind of carousel, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin notes in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, is associated with higher rates of teen pregnancy, behavioral problems in school, and substance abuse. By contrast, "stable, low-conflict families with two biological or adoptive parents provide better environments for children, on average, than do other living arrangements."
How did twentysomethings become the new teen moms? Progressives stress economics as a cause, conservatives stress culture, but both are a factor. Among college-educated couples who have access to stable, high-paying, and meaningful work, only 12 percent have their first child before marriage. By and large, college-educated women and men don’t want to derail their professional and economic prospects by having a baby before they have established a strong economic foundation for themselves and their future family.
But 58 percent of women who have a high-school degree or some college—women we call “middle Americans” and who make up a majority of young adult women—are now having their first child outside of marriage—a rapid and quite recent development. (Among women without a high-school degree, 83 percent do.) The biggest economic issue is that men without college degrees are less likely to hold the kind of stable, decent-paying jobs that will secure their financial future. Chris, 22, a welder in Ohio interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America project at the Institute for American Values, said his recent stint of unemployment “drove the final nail in the coffin” of his relationship with a young woman he was hoping to marry. “[I] was depressed; I was bored out of my mind—no income, not able to do anything. It basically was just like hell,” he said.