With 2.2 million marriages taking place each year in America — an average of 6,000 a day — maybe wedding bells are on your mind.
A lot of changes are taking place in America’s marriage culture (even without getting into the issue of same-sex unions), but one thing hasn’t changed. Americans want to marry.
A new report on young Americans’ views on marriage has been released by Child Trends Inc., a nonpartisan research group that tracks children’s issues.
Child Trends researchers looked at federal data, collected in 2001 and 2002, from 11,988 young adults aged 20 to 24. Here are some highlights of their report, “Young Adult Attitudes About Relationships and Marriage: Times May Have Changed, But Expectations Remain High.”
• Unlike previous generations, today’s young twentysomethings see themselves in a distinct “young adult” stage of life. Internally, they want to understand their identities. Externally, their goals are to get a good education, find a good job or both.
• About 90 percent of these young adults have had sexual intercourse at least once.
• Most (76 percent) are in a romantic relationship that fits one of three descriptions. The most popular (35 percent) is a dating-but-not-cohabiting relationship. Twenty-one percent are married. Another 20 percent are cohabiting.
• Among the unmarried young adults, despite all their romantic relationships, most say they aren’t in a hurry to wed. Fifty-seven percent say they don’t want to be married “now” and 17 percent are “neutral” on the subject. Only 26 percent say they are ready to take the leap.
• Almost everyone plans on getting married. Only 5 percent of unmarried young adults say it’s “unimportant” to marry someday, while 50 percent say it’s “very important.” About 70 percent say they expect to marry by their early 30s.
• Getting married is a top priority for young adults, regardless of race. Asians are the most marriage-minded (88 percent), followed by whites (84 percent), Hispanics (83 percent) and blacks (78 percent).
• Cohabiting with a romantic partner, however, is a distinct possibility. When asked whether they agree with the statement, “It is all right for an unmarried couple to live together even if they are not interested in considering marriage,” 57 percent of young adults say yes. Nineteen percent are neutral; 24 percent say no.
• Not surprisingly, cohabitation rates have skyrocketed. In 1987, about 30 percent of women had cohabited at least once by their late 30s. By 1995, this figure was almost 50 percent; it reached 61 percent by 2002.
• There are gender and racial differences regarding cohabiting. Young men are significantly more enthusiastic about cohabiting than women (62 percent vs. 52 percent). Whites are its biggest supporters (61 percent), followed by Hispanics (58 percent) and Asians (54 percent). Young black adults take the dimmest view of cohabiting, with only 45 percent saying it is all right.
As a final note, the Child Trends report shows that, when asked what they value in successful relationships, young people give their highest marks to love, fidelity and lifelong commitment. Having “enough money” is far down on the list, with only 26 percent of young men and 21 percent of young women ranking it as “very important.”
I would like to throw in another statistic as a reminder that having and raising children always has been a primary reason — if not “the” primary reason — for men and women to take marriage vows.
In the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, men and women were asked if it would bother them “if it turns out” they never have children. Of young adults aged 15 to 24, only a small proportion — 19 percent of men and 11 percent of women — said they wouldn’t mind “at all” ending up childless. In contrast, 35 percent of young men and 49 percent of young women said they would mind “a great deal” if they never had children.
In other words, despite cultural upheavals, American youth still yearn to be married moms and dads.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.