Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. How Common Are Romantic Relationships and Marriage for Young Adults?

10/01/2008

Although most Americans eventually marry, young adults are increasingly delaying marriage. National trends show that the age at first marriage has been rising steadily for several decades. In 1970, the median age at first marriage was approximately 21 for women and 23 for men. By 2005, the median age had increased to 25 for women and 27 for men (www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/ms2.pdf, PDF file, 2 pages).

As marriage is postponed, more informal relationships, such as dating or living together, have become increasingly common. Most research has focused on the increase in cohabitation. Today, most young adults will cohabit at some point in their lives and most marriages are preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass and Lu 2000). Dating and cohabitation are more fluid than marriage, and young adults may cycle in and out of multiple relationships before marrying. In this section, we explore the romantic relationships young adults form in their early 20s.

  • Most young adults in their early 20s are in a romantic relationship, but relatively few are married.

Among the young adults in our sample, 60 percent were in some type of romantic relationship in their early 20s, with 16 percent married, 17 percent cohabiting, and 27 percent dating (Figure IV.1).(3) If these young adults follow the patterns of older cohorts, it is likely that many will marry in the next few years and their rates of marriage will increase substantially. For example, census data indicate that, in 2004, 22 percent of 20 to 24 year olds had ever married, compared to 53 percent of 25 to 29 year olds (www.census.gov/population/socdemo/marital-hist/2004/Table3.2004.xls, Excel file, 21 KB).


Figure IV.1
Relationship Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24,
by Gender and Race/Ethnicity

Figure IV.1 Relationship Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24, by Gender and Race/Ethnicity. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: 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 towave 24 years of the old. NLSY97 Because and of who slight also differences responded in to timing the 2005 across survey these wave, survey 98 percent waves, of 2 percent whom were were 21 to 24 years old. Because of slight differences in timing across these survey waves, 2 percent were either 20 or 25 years old at the time of the 2005 survey wave. either 20 or 25 years old at the time of the 2005 survey wave.

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


  • Women are more likely than men to marry or cohabit in their early 20s. African Americans are less likely than members of other racial and ethnic groups to marry as young adults.

Women are more likely than men to form romantic relationships as young adults. For example, 69 percent of women in our sample reported they were married, cohabiting, or dating at the end of the follow-up period, compared with 52 percent of men (Figure IV.1). The gender difference was particularly pronounced for marriage; 21 percent of women were married compared to 12 percent of 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.

African Americans are somewhat less likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to be in a romantic relationship as young adults. Among our sample of 21-to-24 year olds, 55 percent of African Americans reported being in a romantic relationship, compared with 62 percent of whites and 63 percent of Hispanics (Figure IV.1). African Americans are particularly unlikely to be married as young adults. Among our sample, 7 percent of African Americans were married in their early 20s, compared with 18 percent of whites and 17 percent of Hispanics.

  • Cohabitation is relatively common among those in their early 20s and much more common than marriage. Unlike marriage, cohabiting relationships are fairly fluid.

Cohabitation is much more common than marriage among young adults. Among those in our sample, 39 percent had ever cohabited by the time they were in their early 20s, while 18 percent had ever married (Figure IV.2). 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. The proportion of 20 to 24 year-olds who had ever married declined from over 50 percent in the early 1970s to just under 20 percent by 2003 (Fields 2004). In contrast, the proportion of women in their early 20s who have ever cohabited increased from less than 30 percent in the late 1980s to just over 43 percent in 2002 (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Chandra et al. 2005).


Figure IV.2
Marriage and Cohabitation Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24

Figure IV.2 Marriage and Cohabitation Status of Young Adults Ages 21 to 24. See text for explanation of chart.

Source: 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 1999 wave of the NLSY97 and who also responded to the 2005 survey wave, 98 percent of whom were 21 to 24 years old. Because of slight differences in timing across these survey whom were 21 to 24 years old. Because of slight differences in timing across these survey waves, 2 percent were either 20 or 25 years old at the time of the 2005 survey wave. waves, 2 percent were either 20 or 25 years old at the time of the 2005 survey wave.


Transitions out of cohabiting relationships are common among young adults. For example, 17 percent of the young adults in our sample reported currently living with a romantic partner at the time of the 2005 interview, whereas 39 percent reported that they had ever lived with a romantic partner (Figure IV.2). In other words, 22 percent (39 percent minus 17 percent) had been in a cohabiting relationship that had ended — either through marriage or through the relationship breaking up — and had not entered a new cohabiting relationship. In many cases, these transitions out of cohabitation are transitions into marriage. Among the 22 percent of sample members who had cohabited in the past but were no longer doing so, just under half (10 percent of the full sample) were married at the time of the interview (Figure IV.2). Other work has also found that cohabitation is a fairly fluid arrangement. One study, for example, found that half of cohabiting relationships end in one year or less, either through marriage or relationship breakup (Bumpass and Lu 2000).

In contrast, transitions out of marriage are relatively uncommon among young adults. Only about 2 percent of all sample members — and about 1 in 10 of those who had ever married — had separated or divorced at the time of the 2005 interview. In contrast, about a third of sample members who had ever cohabited were no longer cohabiting and had not married at the time of the interview, suggesting that cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages.

We find that, among our sample members, most marriages were preceded by cohabitation. Among those who reported they were currently married, about 60 percent indicated that they had cohabited at some point.(4) However, most sample members who had cohabited were not currently married. Among those who had ever cohabited, 25 percent were married at the time of the 2005 interview. Of course, this does not imply that only 25 percent of cohabiting relationships will result in marriage. An additional 45 percent were still cohabiting at the time of the 2005 survey, and some of those relationships could lead to marriage in time.

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