“Demographically, socially and culturally, the nation is shifting from a society of childrearing families to a society of child-free adults. The percentage of households with children has declined from half of all households in 1960 to less than one-third today, the lowest percentage in the nation’s history,” according to a study by the National Marriage Project (NMP) at Rutgers University.
This change in America has gone virtually unnoticed and undocumented. Thirty-six years ago, 62 percent of an adult’s life was spent with a spouse and children, the highest in history. By 1985, that dropped to 43 percent, the lowest in history.
Why? There are four key reasons cited by NMP’s report “Life Without Children,” by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe: (www.marriage.rutgers.edu).
(1) Married couples wait longer to have children. In 1960, fully 71 percent had a child within three years of marriage. By 1990, only 37 percent did so. Couples have more child-free years. People also live longer, adding more childless years.
(2) Couples have fewer children. In 1960, women had 3.5 children on average; the number fell to 2 children per woman by 1990 where it has remained. That offers more child-free years at midlife. In 1970, of women aged 50-54 about 27 percent still had at least one minor child at home; that dropped to 15 percent by 2000.
(3) The marriage rate has plunged 48 percent since 1970. Only half (51 percent) of American adults are married. If the same percent were marrying in 2006 as in 1970, there would be 3.3 million marriages, not 2.2 million.
(4) Finally, fewer women have any children. In 2004 almost 1 in 5 women in their early 40s were childless compared with 1 of 10 in 1976.
“Childless young adults are exceedingly well suited to life and work in a dynamic society and global economy. They display great facility and comfort with new technologies. One of their most desirable attributes is that they are not tied down by childrearing obligations. They can pick up and move. They can work odd hours and go on the road,” write Mrs. Whitehead and Mr. Popenoe.
When women do have children, many suffer from “mommy shock.” Motherhood is a radical change, moving from absorbing work and personal freedom to a life in which their time and life are no longer their own. “Everything that once seemed so easy to do on their own now requires advance planning, lining up a babysitter, checking in at home while you are out.”
Furthermore, contemporary motherhood now threatens contemporary marriage. The stress of rearing children has contributed to a divorce rate of 40-50 percent for first marriages.
“Most Americans today don’t marry in order to have children,” the report states. “They marry in order to have an enduring relationship of love, friendship and emotional intimacy. Achieving this new marital ideal takes high levels of time, attention and vigilance. Like new babies, contemporary marriages must be nurtured. The problem is that once a real baby comes along, the effort and energy that goes into nurturing the marriage goes into nurturing the infant.
“As a result, marriages can become less happy and satisfying during the child-rearing years,” the report states.
Once, couples put their children’s needs first. Today, significant numbers are less willing to do so. Asked, “Should a couple stay together for the sake of the children,” 81 percent of today’s women say no, a jump from 51 percent in 1962.
A second impact of the loss of child-centered marriages is that many children sense they are not wanted and have major doubts whether they even want to get married. Only a third of teenagers agree with the proposition, “that most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone,” according to the University of Michigan.
Of course, the kids could not be more wrong. Many studies report married people are twice as likely to say they are “very happy” compared to those who are single. Compared to those who remain married, the never-married “have a reduction in wealth of 75 percent.”
And 56 percent of teens wrongly think “having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle.” Result: a sevenfold increase of babies born out of wedlock, soaring from 5 percent in 1960 to 36 percent in 2004.
America pays a price for exchanging selflessness for selfishness.
Michael J. McManus is a columnist and president of Marriage Savers.