…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.
Two cultural factors are also in play here. The rise of the “capstone” model of marriage is one such factor, as Cherlin has noted. All Americans, not just the college educated—watch the same TV shows and movies and pick up the idea that adults have to have all their ducks in a row—a middle-class lifestyle, a soul mate relationship—before they settle down. This model sets a high bar for marriage and minimizes marriage’s classic connection to parenthood. So large numbers of less-educated twentysomethings who view the capstone model as unattainable end up having the child before the marriage.
Second, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, many young adults have been scarred by the divorce revolution—which hit poor and middle American communities harder than upper- and middle-class communities—and have become gun-shy about marriage. They have seen too many friends and family divorce to have the trust required to move forward with a wedding. So, living amid a climate characterized by a trust deficit, they often choose, or drift “unintentionally” into, parenthood with partners who are not marriageable or who seem good but to whom they are not yet ready to marry.
Melissa, a 31-year-old single mother, had this to say about why she has never married any of her boyfriends: “I just never felt that anyone’s as loyal to me as I am to them,” she said. “Even when I feel like I’m in a good relationship, there’ll be little things that they’ll do that will make me start wondering, ‘Do they really have my back?’ ”, according to the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, a study of Middle American relationships in a small town in Ohio. What’s striking about Melissa’s comment—which is all too representative—is that it’s not just the bad guys who give her pause about marriage; it’s also the good guys. She just seems to harbor a general suspicion about the possibility of lifelong love and the whole institution of marriage.