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Why some millennials are more likely to start families before marriage

Michael Shulman
A new study says that rising income inequality is causing millennials to forgo tying the knot before having children. 

A new study says that rising income inequality is causing millennials to forgo tying the knot before having children.

The paper published in the American Sociological Review Thursday says that young people who live in areas of the U.S. where there is a shortage of well–paying employment, particularly for those who lack a college education, are choosing to have children outside of marriage, even though it is perceived to be the socially acceptable way to start a family. 

“Young adults these days won’t get married unless they’re convinced they’ll have a long-term, successful marriage and that requires a steady income,” the study’s author, Andrew Cherlin, told Yahoo Finance Canada. 

“What’s happening is that many of those people are … going ahead and having kids without marrying because they don’t see the prospect of a good marriage happening to them.”

2014 research by Pew had similar findings in that 78 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men said they want a spouse with a steady job.

Never-Married Women Want a Spouse with a Steady Job

The latest study examined 9,000 young people, who were part of the 1997 U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, when they were 12 to 16 years old, until 2011 when they were reinterviewed at the age of 26 to 31.

By the end of the survey, the 53 per cent of the women and 41 per cent of the men reported having at least one child. Furthermore, 59 per cent of those births happened outside of wedlock, and most of them hadn’t graduated from college. 

The researchers then paired the data with income and employment information from the U.S. census. They found that men and women who lived in counties with high income inequality and fewer “middle-skilled jobs,” or employment that is accessible to high school graduates and pays above-poverty wages, were less likely to marry before having a child.

In fact, women had a 15 to 27 per cent lower chance of marrying before having a child in those areas.

While it might seem logical for people to hold off on having children because of the added expense, Cherlin said the growing acceptance of different types of family units is also likely responsible for the shift.

“50 years ago you wouldn’t have had a kid because it was not acceptable to have a (child) outside of marriage. Now, you might go ahead and have a child because it is not worth waiting a long time and risking never having one,” said Cherlin.

“To most young adults having children is an essential part of their lives … perhaps the most rewarding part of life, and they’re not willing to forgo having children. Marriage would be nice but it’s optional,” he added.

In particular, the study focused on middle-skilled jobs, because past research has shown links between marriage and the labour market for men, and studies have shown young women who have a potential to garner higher wages down the road have greater rates of marriage.

The “vast majority” of people who have a child before getting married have also not attained their bachelor’s degree and have most of their children in their 20s, which is why the study cautions that its findings mainly apply to young adults from that demographic. 

However, Cherlin said there has been a shift towards what he said has been called “the hour-glass economy,” which has left those in the middle feeling the pinch because of disappearing employment.

“It is the people in the middle with a moderate amount of education who have been affected the most by the changes in the job market: By the movement of factories overseas, by automation … those are the people who have become much more likely to have children outside marriage,” he said

“So the very people who have been most affected by the shifts in our economy are the ones that changing the ways they have families.”

The study also citied factors such as the decline in the percentage of workers who belong to unions and the decreased value of the minimum wage.

“The result is that workers with high school degrees -- but not bachelor’s degrees and particularly men -- who tend to cluster in these occupations, face a weakened demand for their labour, reduced bargaining power and decreasing or stagnant wages,” write the authors in the study.

Cherlin said a similar decline in middle-skilled jobs, along the same lines, has also occurred in Canada.

And the trends around marriage and childbirth have echoed those south of the border, with exception being Quebec.

“In most of Canada, it’s the case that people will still marry if they can, but will go ahead and have children without marrying if they don’t see the prospects of a successful marriage coming around anytime soon,” said Cherlin.

“Quebec seems to have a somewhat different culture from the rest of Canada that’s connected with the French language and French culture … Quebec’s family patterns looks much more like France than the rest of Canada.

In contrast, Cherlin said families in English-speaking Canada tend to mirror those in the United Kingdom. 

“There’s a strong cultural difference,” he said.

In fact, Cherlin said there’s “less of difference” between states in the U.S. than there are between Quebec and the rest of Canada. 

“You really almost have two different families – there’s one for Quebec and then there’s one for the rest of the country,” he said.

However, Cherlin said he hopes the biggest takeaway from the study is that it opens people’s eyes to the changes that are happening as a result of the shortage of well-paying jobs for the middle of the market, which are in turn causing income inequality and then directly affecting the way people form families.

“It is important because it shows how macro trends like income inequality can reach down into the lives of parents and children,” he said.