Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. ASPE Research Brief.. Typical Relationship Pathways in the Years After High School

10/01/2008

Most adults in their early 20s are in a romantic relationship, but relatively few are married.  Cohabitation is more common than marriage for this age group.

By the time they are in their early 20s, most young adults are in a romantic relationship. Among the 21 to 24 year olds in our NLSY97 sample, 60 percent had a romantic partner at the time of the 2005 survey (Figure 5). Marriage is relatively uncommon among these young adults, however. Among this sample, 16 percent were married at the time of the survey, whereas 17 percent were cohabiting and 27 percent were dating. If these young adults follow the patterns of older cohorts, however, it is likely that many will marry in the next few years and their rates of marriage will increase substantially.


Figure 5
Relationship Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24

Figure 5. Relationship Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24. See text for explanation.

Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), 2005 Wave.

Note: Sample is restricted to young adults who were ages 15 to 18 at the time they responded to the 1999 wave of the NLSY97 and who also responded to the 2005 survey wave, 98 percent of whom were 21 to 24 years old.

*Significantly different from other gender or racial/ethnic groups at the .05 level.


Young adults in their early 20s are much more likely to have experienced cohabitation than marriage. Among the young adults in our NLSY97 sample, 39 percent had ever cohabited, while only 18 percent had ever married. Data from other studies suggest that the phenomenon of young adults being more likely to cohabit than to marry may be a fairly recent one, since marriage rates for young adults have declined substantially in recent decades while cohabitation rates have increased (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Fields 2004; Chandra et al. 2005).

Young adults in cohabiting relationships tend to rate their relationship quality as high and report relationship quality levels similar to those of young adults who are married. Even so, transitions out of cohabiting relationships are substantially more common than transitions out of marriage for adults in this age group. About a third of sample members who had ever cohabited were neither cohabiting nor married at the time of the 2005 interview. In contrast, only about 1 in 10 of those who had ever married were no longer married at this point.

Women are much more likely than men to marry and cohabit in early adulthood.  The likelihood of early marriage and cohabitation is also associated with race/ethnicity and family structure growing up.

As part of our analysis, we examined the association of various characteristics and behaviors in adolescence with the likelihood of marriage and cohabitation in early adulthood. We used multivariate statistical techniques to determine which of these adolescent characteristics are most strongly associated with the relationship outcomes of young adults. Based on this analysis, we find that gender is one of the strongest predictors. In particular, women are substantially more likely than men to marry and cohabit as young adults, even after adjusting for background differences. Among those in our NLSY97 sample, 20 percent of women had married by the time they were in their early 20s, compared with 12 percent of men (Table 1). Similarly, 45 percent of women had cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 31 percent of young men. This gap reflects the pattern that women typically marry at younger ages than men do and often form romantic relationships with men who are somewhat older than they are.

The likelihood of early marriage and cohabitation is also closely associated with race/ethnicity. Among our NLSY97 sample members, African Americans are less likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to marry or cohabit in early adulthood, even after adjusting for background differences across these groups. For example, 7 percent of African Americans had married by their early 20s, compared with 21 percent of whites and 19 percent of Hispanics (Table 1). Similarly, 30 percent of African Americans had cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 43 percent of whites and 39 percent of Hispanics.

Family structure growing up is also associated with the likelihood of early marriage and cohabitation. Those who grew up with a single, never-married parent are particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. Among sample members in this group, 9 percent had married by their early 20s, compared with 18 percent for the full sample (Table 1). In contrast, young adults who lived with neither biological parent as teenagers are particularly likely to marry and cohabit. Among sample members in this group, 22 percent had married by their early 20s (compared with 18 percent for all sample members) and 52 percent had cohabited (compared with 39 percent for all sample members).

Table 1. Probability of Marrying or Cohabiting Among Young Adults Ages 21 to 24
  Predicted Probability of:
Percentage
with
Characteristic
Marrying Cohabiting
Source:  National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), 1999 and 2005 waves.

Note:  The predicted probabilities presented here are based on the results from estimating a set of logit regression models. They represent the likelihood of the outcome in question for a person who has the particular characteristic in the table but who otherwise has the average characteristics of all adults in the sample.

Tests of statistical significance reported here refer to the difference between the predicted probability of adults with the particular characteristic and the predicted probability for those in the reference category in each group. For each characteristic, the reference category is indicated by italics.

* Differences between the predicted probability for sample members with this characteristic and for those in the italicized reference category statistically significant at the .05 level.

Overall 100 18 39
Demographics
Gender
   Female 49 20* 45*
   Male 51 12 31
Race and Ethnicity
   White 68 21 43
   African American 15 7* 30*
   Hispanic 13 19 39
Family Background
Household Composition as a Teen, Lived with:
   Married biological parents 51 16 32
   Remarried parents 13 19 46*
   Formerly married parent 22 16 41*
   Never-married parent 3 9* 34
   Neither biological parent 8 22* 52*
Household Income as a Teen
   Below 200% of poverty level 40 19* 40*
   At or above 200% of poverty level 60 14 36
Adolescent Behaviors and Expectations
Dropped Out of High School
   Yes 18 18 50*
   No 82 16 35
Dated by Age 16
   Yes 90 17 39*
   No 10 16 28
Had Sex by Age 16
   Yes 50 18 47*
   No 50 15 32
Perceived Likelihood as a Teen of Marriage Within Five Years
   < 50 percent chance 46 13 33
   50 percent chance 26 12 39*
   > 50 percent chance 28 25* 45*
Sample Size = 5,252

For other family types, the structure of the family of origin is not strongly linked with the likelihood of marriage in early adulthood. Once we adjust for differences in background characteristics, the likelihood of an early marriage is similar for those who grew up with married biological parents, remarried parents, and divorced or widowed parents who did not remarry. However, growing up with married biological parents is associated with a reduced likelihood of cohabitation in young adulthood. Among those in our sample who lived with married biological parents as teenagers, 32 percent had ever cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 46 percent among those who lived with remarried parents as teens and 41 percent of those who lived with a divorced or widowed parent who had not remarried.

The likelihood of cohabitation among young adults is associated with certain adolescent risk behaviors; however, the likelihood of early marriage is not.

The likelihood that young adults cohabit is strongly associated with certain teenage risk behaviors — in particular, dropping out of school and early sexual activity. Among our NLSY97 sample members, 50 percent of those who had dropped out of high school had cohabited by the time they were in their early 20s, compared with only 35 percent of high school graduates (Table 1). Similarly, among those in our sample who had had sex by age 16, 47 percent cohabited as young adults, compared with 32 percent of those who initiated sexual activity at a later point. However, neither dropping out nor early sexual activity is associated with the likelihood of marriage in young adulthood. This likelihood is about the same for dropouts and graduates (18 versus 16 percent). Similarly, the likelihood of early marriage is not significantly different for early and later initiators of sexual activity (18 versus 15 percent).

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