The New American Family

All are welcome, and you don’t even have to get married

American people. Photo by Thinkstock.

Picture a hypothetical parents’ night at Average Elementary School: A young couple, not married, looks at their kids’ art projects. A pair in their 50s, old enough to be grandparents, frets about their only child. A single mother jots down information about an after-school program. Two men approach a teacher to ask about their adopted son. The people in the room are white, Hispanic, Black, and Asian, and several of the couples are interracial.

This is the new American family. In ways large and small, the fundamental societal building block has morphed from the cookie-cutter norms of the last century to a vivid array of possibilities.

“I wouldn’t say the Ozzie and Harriet family is headed towards extinction, but it’s really a much much smaller slice of American life,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and an ISR researcher, who adds that the American public—and employers and government—are still catching up to the new reality. “If you watch a lot of TV, there are certainly shows that highlight these different family arrangements, but I think a lot of people look at those and say, ‘Well, that’s Hollywood or New York or someplace like that. It’s not where I live.’”

All this is not to say that the old stereotype of family—a married man and woman, two kids, and a dog—is out. A recent study shows that 83 percent of young adults aged 20-24 still think it’s important to get married someday. And, in fact, most Americans do end up marrying eventually. But how they get there, when, and with whom, is a changing story.

For starters, the American family is not nearly as white as it used to be. Depending on which government statistics you believe, white babies may already be in the minority. The U.S. Census put minority births at just over 50 percent in 2012, while the National Center for Health Statistics says non-Hispanic white births are still in the lead at 54 percent. Either way, we are a multiracial society and becoming more so each year.

Mixed race couples have become far more common, another sign of our increasingly inclusive culture. And more gay couples have started families. The number of unmarried households headed by same-sex couples increased 80 percent in the 2010 Census from a decade earlier to almost 650,000, and an estimated 25 percent of those households are raising children.

Gay couple. Illustration by Thinkstock.All of these different American families share a challenge: Marriage, itself, can be elusive. Although gay marriage is now legal in 19 states and counting, it’s still barred in many parts of the country. And for all couples, gay or straight, marriage increasingly is a luxury beyond the reach of the very young, most available to those with money and education.

Still, waiting isn’t always that bad.

First comes love, then comes…?

Many couples aren’t in a hurry to tie the knot because they’re living together first, sometimes for many years. Remember the shotgun wedding: Pregnant girl, angry father, married life started under a shroud of shame?

That sense of shame is gone, and ready birth control and changed sexual mores have removed the stigma attached to living together—and even having kids—outside of marriage. “People weren’t opposed to cohabitation because folks were cooking together or doing laundry together,” says ISR sociologist Pamela Smock. “They were opposed to it because people were having sex outside of marriage. Once premarital sex became something people approved of, cohabitation started to escalate.”

Proposal. Illustration by Thinkstock.And escalate it has. Today about two-thirds of young adults live with a partner at some point, and three-quarters of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation, Smock says. In part because of cohabitation, the median age at which women and men marry for the first time has been creeping up—now at 25.8 for women and 28.3 for men. The good news is that divorce rates have plateaued or dipped slightly to 40 to 50 percent since peaking in the early 1980s.

But averages only tell part of the story. The less education people have—and limited education generally equates with lower salaries—the more likely they are to cohabit for long periods of time without marrying, and the more likely they are to divorce. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth shows that during the 2006-2010 period, 1 in 5 women who didn’t have a high school diploma or GED reported living with someone, but only about 1 in 14 women with a bachelor’s degree or more were cohabiting. And only a third of women with college degrees get divorced, compared to 60 percent of women who didn’t finish high school.

The baby carriage

As people take longer to get married, they’re also waiting longer to have kids. This is partly because—more good news—teen pregnancy rates have plummeted, dropping 40 percent from 1990 to 2008. Credit better sex ed and readily available birth control. Women in their early 20s also are becoming pregnant at the lowest rate in more than 30 years. The group having more babies: women over 30, and, particularly, women aged 40-44.

Single mom. Illustration by Thinkstock.As how couples come together changes, these babies are being born into different kinds of families. Specifically, a wedding ring is becoming less likely to precede a stroller. More than 40 percent of births occurred outside of marriage in 2009, compared to 28 percent in 1990. That’s a fundamental change. And sixty percent of those babies born to unmarried mothers are born to cohabiting parents.

Why are so many couples waiting to marry, and having kids before marriage, when marriage is still the avowed goal of the vast majority of Americans? Research has shown that many cohabiting couples won’t consider marriage until they have enough money to have a “proper” wedding, and to feel economically secure. In fact, for some, getting married has become a symbol of achievement not linked to setting up a household or having children. “In our culture, marriage is the desired capstone for having already achieved economic well-being,” says Smock, “not something you do on the path to getting there.”

Infographic: Percent of all births that are to unmarried women

And, as ISR researchers Arland Thornton, William Axinn, and Yu Xie note in their 2007 book, Marriage and Cohabitation, the connection in the West between earning capacity and the ability to marry “leads to the expectation that young people with high skill levels, extensive training in educational programs, high-quality jobs, and good long-term job prospects will be able to marry and establish independent households earlier than those with fewer of these resources.”

Ideas about when and with whom to have sex have changed. But the sense of what it takes for a couple to be ready to marry can be surprisingly old fashioned. It’s not unusual, research shows, for both members of a man-woman couple to believe that the man must have a solid job and be earning more than the woman before they’ll consider getting hitched. This despite the fact that as women earn more college degrees than men, more women are becoming the primary breadwinners.

Bride and Groom. Illustration by Thinkstock.So while marriage seems to confer benefits and those who are married tend to do better economically than couples who aren’t, that may partly be the result of a process of self-selection that keeps economically precarious households from taking that step. 

This rings true for ISR sociologist Paula Fomby. She cites research by sociologist Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins who, she says, “has done work to describe this striving population, aiming for marriage, aiming for home ownership, aiming for stable employment, and starting a family together and kind of missing the boat on all those economic markers.”

Being a kid in the new American family

As couples shake things up, the landscape for children growing up can be downright tumultuous. Forty percent of young adults have lived with cohabiting parents. Fewer than half of young adults reach age 18 in a family headed by their married biological parents. And more than half experience a change in their family structure, such as a mother divorcing or changing partners.

What does all this mean for kids? First of all, with something as complicated and nuanced as a family, each situation is unique, and how kids adapt depends on a broad set of variables. That said, research shows that family instability—in all its various forms—is challenging for children.

Combined families are one example of this. Blending kids from different relationships strains parents and children. It’s harder to keep consistent rules, it’s not always clear where authority lies, and there’s often a sense of anger and loss as new people arrive and old family members move out and on.

Sidebar: Up and out... or notSociologist Fomby found that nearly one in five children today lives with a half- or step-sibling at age 4. Doing so raises by 14 percent the chance that the child will act out when they start school, Fomby says. And kids who live with both a step-parent and step- or half-siblings show an almost 30 percent increase in aggressive behavior on entering school.

Fomby says kids may act out because their attachment to the custodial parent—typically the mother—suffers when families reconfigure. Mothers may have to work more hours, or be distracted by a new relationship, or have more commitments. And, once again, women who have had children with more than one father are more likely to be poor and not to have a college degree.

All these changes may be hard on children, but Fomby is quick to note that parents aren’t to blame for somehow being feckless and subjecting their kids to harmful churn. “Families end up in complicated relationships largely because of macroeconomic forces that are well beyond their control,” she stresses. “There are disincentives to get education as the cost of education goes up. There are diminished labor force opportunities in a lot of low income neighborhoods, so it’s hard to find a partner who is stably employed. These are the sort of on-the-ground consequences of huge structural changes that have had serious consequences for social organization.”

The mass imprisonment spurred by the decades-long War on Drugs is one such structural change that has had major consequences. African-American families have been hit particularly hard, in part because of the large numbers of Black men arrested for minor drug infractions. Research shows that one-third of African-American men are now in prison, on probation, or on parole. And kids with at least one parent in jail are more likely to be poor, to have a broken family, and—according to the research of Yale sociologist and former ISR post-doc Christopher Wildeman—to be at risk of homelessness.

Grandparent and kid. Illustration by Thinkstock.A slight bright spot: Kids with close ties to a grandparent, family friend, or others outside the household will likely weather changes—from step families to a jailed parent—more easily. “Residential stability, school stability…these are all places that are familiar when other things might be changing at home,” Fomby says. And, in fact, African-American children often do better in these situations than white kids, she adds, perhaps because they tend to stay in the same neighborhoods and to maintain relations with extended kin.

There is also the potential benefit of ending up with an expanded network of relatives and caregivers that transcends a single house. A father may live elsewhere, but still be involved. A step-sister may move away but still be emotionally close. “Kids growing up don’t necessarily have their family in one household living with them,” Smock says. “They may have ties to several different groups of relatives. The challenge for society is how to make the new family or new families something that’s beneficial for kids.”

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