Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Overview of Main Results


Teens live in a mix of family structures, but most live with married parents — 50 percent with both biological parents and 13 percent with a parent who has remarried. The likelihood of living with two married biological parents varies substantially across various subgroups of teens, with African-American and low-income teens particularly unlikely to live with married biological parents. We also find that most teens view their parents’ marriages positively, particularly those living with both their biological parents. Teens with estranged parents hold less positive views of the quality of their parents’ relationship.

Most teens date at some point. Among our NLSY97 sample members, 74 percent of 15 year olds and 94 percent of 18 year olds report having dated. Sexual activity is less common than dating, but is relatively common among older teens. Among 18 year olds, 65 percent report having had sexual intercourse. We also find that high school students are dating less than they did 15 to 20 years ago and that recent trends suggest that they are delaying sexual activity until later in high school.

We also examined teenagers’ attitudes and expectations concerning romantic relationships and marriage. We find that most teens express strong general support for marriage and believe it is better to get married than stay single. Among high school seniors, most say they feel well prepared for marriage and expect to get married one day. However, while support for marriage remains strong among teens, a growing proportion approves of cohabitation before marriage and wants to delay getting married until later in life.

Teens’ attitudes toward marriage differ by gender and family background characteristics. In general, teenage boys have more positive attitudes toward marriage than teenage girls do; however, boys are more likely than girls to want to delay marriage. Teens’ attitudes toward marriage are also closely linked with their family structure, with support for marriage strongest among teens who are living with both of their biological parents. Support for marriage is also stronger among teens living in rural areas.

Finally, we used data from the 2005 wave of the NLSY97 to examine the romantic relationships of our NLSY97 sample members in early adulthood, when they were 21 to 24 years old. We find that most of these young adults were in a romantic relationship in their early 20s, but relatively few were married. Cohabitation was much more common than marriage for these young adults, with 39 percent having cohabited at some point, compared with 18 percent who had ever married. Young adults in cohabiting relationships tended to rate their relationship quality as high and reported relationship quality levels similar to those of young adults who were married. Even so, transitions out of cohabiting relationships were more common than transitions out of marriage.

The likelihood of marriage and cohabitation varies substantially across different groups of young adults. In particular, women are much more likely than men to marry and cohabit in early adulthood, reflecting the pattern that women often marry at younger ages than men do and often form romantic relationships with men who are somewhat older than they are. We also find that African Americans are less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to marry or cohabit in young adulthood. The likelihood of marriage and cohabitation for young adults also varies by their family structure growing up. For example, those who grew up with a single never-married parent are particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. We also find that those who lived with two married biological parents as teens are less likely than other teens to cohabit as young adults. Finally, we find that the likelihood of cohabitation among young adults is positively associated with certain adolescent risk behaviors (in particular, early sexual activity and dropping out of school). However, these behaviors are not associated with the likelihood of marriage during early adulthood.

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