High-school-aged teens hold complex and changing attitudes toward marriage. Most teens express strong support for marriage and expect to get married one day. At the same time, most teens also believe they can live happily without getting married and that it is a good idea for couples to live together before marriage. A growing number of teens want to delay marriage until they finish college or have worked for several years. In this section, we describe teens’ general attitudes toward marriage and how they have changed in the past 30 years.
- Most high-school-aged teens have positive attitudes toward marriage and feel well prepared for it.
When asked about their general attitudes toward marriage, most high-school-aged teens express strong support. For example, in the 2006 wave of the MTF study, 91 percent of high school seniors responded that having a good marriage and family life was either “quite important” or “extremely important” to them (Figure III.1). Only 2 percent said that a good marriage and family life was “not important.” Similarly, data from the 2002 NSFG show that a majority (64 percent) of high-school-aged teens either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “It is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single” (Figure III.1).
Most high school students also feel well prepared for marriage. In the 2006 MTF study, students were asked the question, “How well do you think your experiences and training (at home, school, work, etc.) have prepared you to be a good husband or wife?” Over 70 percent of high school seniors said they felt either “well” or “very well” prepared for marriage (Figure III.1). Less than 10 percent said they felt “poorly” prepared.
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage
Source: Data on whether it is better to get married than to stay single from 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Other data from 2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. Other data from 2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.
Note: NSFG data cover all 15-18 year olds. MTF data cover high school seniors only.
Although most teens have positive attitudes toward marriage, many do not equate marriage with happiness. In the 2006 MTF study, only 36 percent of high school seniors agreed with the statement, “Most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single, or just living with someone else” (not shown). By contrast, 30 percent of students disagreed with the idea that people are happier when married, and 34 percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed. These findings suggest that, although most high school students are supportive of marriage, they also believe that adults can be happy without getting married, and they may see no clear causal link between marriage and happiness.
- Most high-school-aged teens expect to get married, and a growing number want to delay marriage until later in life.
In addition to holding positive general views about marriage, most high-school-aged teens say they expect to get married. In the 2006 wave of the MTF study, students were asked which relationship outcome they are most likely to choose in the long run — getting married or staying single. More than 80 percent of high school seniors said they expect to get married (Figure III.2). Another 15 percent said they are unsure which relationship outcome they are most likely to choose, while only 4 percent said they are most likely to stay single. Among the 81 percent of students who said they expect to get married, 90 percent said they expect to stay married to the same person for life. The high percentage of students who expect to get married is consistent with evidence that a large majority of U.S. adults eventually get married at least once in their lives (Kreider and Fields 2002). However, teens may overstate their chances of staying married to the same person for life, as about half of all first marriages now end in divorce (Bramlett and Mosher 2002).
High School Seniors’ Expectations for Marriage
Source: 2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.
a Limited to the 81 percent of students who expect to get married.
In the 2006 MTF study, when asked about the ideal time to get married, nearly half (47 percent) of all high school seniors said they want to delay marriage for more than five years (Figure III.2). The number of high school students wanting to delay marriage has also grown in recent years. From 1976 to 2006, the percentage of high school seniors wanting to delay marriage for at least five years jumped from 27 to 47 percent (Figure III.3). At the same time, the percentage who want to get married within two or three years after high school dropped from 36 to 18 percent. Thus, the percentage of high school seniors who want to wait at least five years before getting married (47 percent) is now more than twice as high as the percentage who want to get married within the next two or three years (18 percent). The sharp rise in the number of 12th graders wanting to delay marriage is tied closely to changes in girls’ expectations for marriage, as we describe later in this chapter.
Ideal Time to Get Married According to High School Seniors, 1976-2006
Source: 1976-2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys.
Note: Figures represent responses to the survey question, “If it were just up to you, when would be the ideal time to get married?”time to get married?”
- High school students have become more accepting of cohabitation in recent years.
The recent increase in the number of high school students wanting to delay marriage has coincided with a growing acceptance of cohabitation. In the mid-1970s, 40 percent of all high school seniors said they agreed or mostly agreed with the statement, “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along” (Figure III.4). However, the proportion of 12th graders who approve of cohabitation jumped to more than 50 percent by the late 1980s and more than 60 percent by the late 1990s. In 2006, nearly two-thirds of all high school seniors (64 percent) agreed with the statement that it is a good idea for couples to live together before marriage. Teens’ growing acceptance of cohabitation mirrors the rise in cohabitation rates among U.S. couples, as more than half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass and Lu 2000).
Percentage of High School Seniors Endorsing Cohabitation Before Marriage, 1976-2006
Source: 1976-2006 Monitoring the Future (MTF) surveys. Authors’ calculations for years 1990-2006. Schulenberg et al. (1995) for years 1976-1988. et al. (1995) for years 1976-1988.