Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Which Young Adults Are Most Likely to Marry and Cohabit?

10/01/2008

Until this point, we have examined whether various factors, such as gender, race/ethnicity, and income, are related to relationship behaviors and outcomes. Certain of these characteristics, however, may be linked with each other. For example, what if adolescents who grew up with single parents and those who grew up in low-income households are less likely to marry?  Living with a single parent makes growing up in a low-income household more likely. Thus, to determine which has a stronger association with marriage, we need to disentangle the link between family composition and income level. Statistical techniques can be used to separate the influence of one factor from another and to predict the likelihood of the outcome in question for a person who has a particular characteristic, but who otherwise has the average characteristics of all adults in the sample.

In this section, we analyze how various characteristics in adolescence relate to the likelihood that individuals will marry or cohabit as young adults controlling for other background characteristics. We consider the predictive power of the adolescent characteristics discussed in chapters II and III, since these may be important precursors to later behaviors. Using statistical methods to control for various demographic and background characteristics, we examine whether these young adults had ever cohabited or married by 2005.

  • Women are more likely than men to marry and cohabit in their early 20s.

Even with other factors controlled, women are more likely to marry and cohabit than men as young adults. For example, 20 percent of women married, compared to 12 percent of men (Table IV.2). Further, 45 percent of women had cohabited by their early 20s, compared with 31 percent of young men. As with the earlier results that did not adjust for background characteristics, this difference reflects the pattern that young women often marry or cohabit with somewhat older men.

  • African Americans are less likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to marry or cohabit in young adulthood. White young adults are more likely than others to cohabit before marriage.

African Americans are less likely to marry in early adulthood than those in other racial and ethnic groups, a difference that is statistically significant 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 IV.2).

Although whites and Hispanics have similar rates of marriage in early adulthood, their paths to marriage are somewhat different. Among our sample members, whites were more likely than Hispanics to have cohabited before marriage — 15 percent of whites had both married and cohabited, compared with 10 percent of Hispanics (Table IV.2). African Americans were particularly unlikely to have both married and cohabited, with 3 percent in this group. However, their likelihood of cohabiting without marriage is similar to those in other racial and ethnic groups, 27 percent compared with 29 percent for whites and Hispanics.

Table IV.2
Probability of Marrying or Cohabiting Among Young Adults Ages 21 to 24
  Percentage
with
Characteristic
Predicted Probability of:
Marrying Cohabiting Marrying without Cohabiting Marrying and Cohabiting Cohabiting without Marrying
Source: 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. In addition to the characteristics included in the table, the model included and controlled for “other” race/ethnicity, whether the respondent lived with cohabiting parents in 1999, age in 2005, and whether the respondent had never had sex by 2005.

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 7 10 28
Demographics
Gender
   Female 49 20* 45* 8* 13* 32*
   Male 51 12 31 5 7 24
Race and Ethnicity
   White 68 21 43 7 15 29
   African American 15 7* 30* 4* 3* 27
   Hispanic 13 19 39 10* 10* 29
Geographic Location
Lived in Rural Area as a Teen
   Yes 23 21* 36 9* 12* 24*
   No 77 15 39 6 9 29
Census Region as a Teen
   Northeast 17 9 35 4 5 30
   Midwest 26 17* 41* 7* 10* 31
   South 36 19* 36 8* 12* 25*
   West 22 17* 40* 6 10* 30
Family Background
Household Composition as a Teen, Lived with:
   Married biological parents 51 16 32 8 8 24
   Remarried parents 13 19 46* 6 13* 33*
   Formerly married parent 22 16 41* 7 10 32*
   Never-married parent 3 9* 34 4* 5 29
   Neither biological parent 8 22* 52* 5* 17* 35*
Household Income as a Teen
   Below 200% of poverty 40 19* 40* 7 12* 28
   200% of poverty or above 60 14 36 6 8 28
Adolescent Behaviors and Expectations
Dropped Out of High School
   Yes 18 18 50* 4* 13* 37*
   No 82 16 35 7 9 26
Dated by Age 16
   Yes 90 17 39* 6 10 29*
   No 10 16 28 8 8 20
Had Sex by Age 16
   Yes 50 18 47* 5* 12* 35*
   No 50 15 32 7 8 24
Perceived Likelihood of Marriage in Next Five Years
   < 50 percent chance 46 13 33 5 8 24
   50 percent chance 26 12 39* 5 7 32*
   > 50 percent chance 28 25* 45* 11* 14* 31*
Sample Size = 5,252

These findings suggest that cohabitation may play a different role in the lives of whites, Hispanics, and African Americans. Although the likelihood of cohabitation without marriage is similar across race and ethnicity, whites appear to be more likely to use cohabitation as a step toward marriage. Other work also suggests that cohabitation is more likely to be a precursor to marriage for whites (Phillips and Sweeney 2005). Among cohabitors, whites are more likely to marry their partners than African Americans (Brown 2000). Hispanics are more likely than whites to have a child while cohabiting, and to indicate the birth was intended (Manning 2001, Musick 2002).

  • Those who grew up in rural areas and outside the Northeast are more likely to marry as young adults.

Young adults who grew up in rural areas are more likely to marry than those who grew up in more urban areas. Among sample members who grew up in a rural area, 21 percent had married by their early 20s, compared with 15 percent for those who did not grow up in a rural area (Table IV.2). The likelihood of marrying as a young adult also varies by region of the country, with those who grew up in the Northeast particularly unlikely to marry as young adults. Among young adults who grew up in the Northeast, 9 percent were married by their early 20s, compared with 17 to 19 percent for those who grew up in other regions of the country. Southerners are the most likely to marry as young adults, with 19 percent having married by their early 20s. They are also somewhat less likely than those in other regions of the country to cohabit without marrying (25 percent versus 30 to 31 percent).

  • Young adults who grew up with married biological parents are less likely to cohabit. Those who grew up with neither biological parent have high rates of marriage and cohabitation as young adults.

Growing up with married biological parents is associated with a reduced likelihood of cohabitation in young adulthood. Among those 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 (Table IV.2). Cohabitation may seem more familiar to young adults with divorced parents if they experienced their parents’ subsequent cohabitation. Research suggests that about 20 percent of children whose parents were married at the time of their birth will live in a cohabiting family before age 16 (Bumpass and Lu 2000). These early experiences may increase the likelihood that children from divorced families will grow up to form their own cohabiting relationships.

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 IV.2). For other family types, the structure of the family of origin is not strongly linked with the likelihood of marriage in early adulthood. 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. We may find the association between family structure and marriage changes as young adults age. It is possible that those who lived with married biological parents will marry in later years at a rate higher than those from other family structures. Alternatively, the family structure in which young adults lived in their adolescence may be more strongly linked in their later years with divorce than with the likelihood of marriage. Young adults from different types of families may be equally likely to marry over time, but research has shown that those with divorced parents are less likely to stay married (Amato 1996; Teachman 2002).

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 IV.2). This result suggests that those who grow up with neither biological parent may have a stronger interest than other young adults in forming their own family and thus be particularly likely to form serious romantic relationships in early adulthood. It may also be that, in some cases, those who were not living with either parent as teens were already cohabiting or married and those relationships have persisted into early adulthood.(7)

  • Those who grew up in low-income households are more likely to marry as young adults.

Young adults who lived in low-income households as teenagers are more likely to marry than those who lived in higher-income households. Among young adults who grew up in low-income households, 19 percent had married by their early 20s, compared with 14 percent for those who lived in higher-income households (Table IV.2).(8) Those who grew up in low-income households were particularly likely to have both cohabited and married by the time they were young adults (12 percent compared with 8 percent for those from higher-income households).

  • High school dropouts are more likely to cohabit as young adults than are those who finished high school; however, they are equally likely to marry.

Young adults who have dropped out of high school are substantially more likely to cohabit as young adults than are those who finished high school.(9) Among our sample members, 50 percent of dropouts had cohabited by the time they were in their early 20s, compared with 35 percent of high school graduates (Table IV.2). In contrast, the likelihood of marriage in early adulthood is about the same for dropouts and graduates, with 18 percent of dropouts and 16 percent of graduates having married by this point.

Other work has found a strong link between education and cohabitation. Some have argued that the increase in cohabitation over the past few decades has been driven by increases in cohabitation among the less educated (Bumpass and Lu 2000). Cohabitation may be a particularly attractive option for those with less education, since it provides a means of pooling economic resources for those with less income. High school dropouts may be hesitant to take the step from cohabitation to marriage however, because of their tenuous economic circumstances. Past research has consistently found that the likelihood of marriage is positively related to economic well-being (Clarkberg 1999; Sassler and Schoen 1999; Xie et al. 2003). Similarly, cohabiting men with higher earnings are more likely to marry and less likely to break up with their partners than their lower-earning peers (Smock and Manning 1997).

  • Romantic and sexual relationships in adolescence are positively linked with cohabitation in early adulthood. They are not associated with the likelihood of marriage, however.

Early initiation of romantic and sexual relationships is related to the likelihood of cohabitation in early adulthood, but not to the likelihood of marriage. For example, 39 percent of young adults in our sample who had dated by age 16 cohabited in their early 20s, compared with 28 percent of those who started dating later (Table IV.2). In contrast, similar percentages of both groups were married by their early 20s. Engaging in sexual activity early in adolescence is even more strongly associated with the likelihood of cohabitation than early dating is. Among those 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. As with early dating, early sexual activity was not associated with the likelihood of marriage in young adulthood. However, those who postponed initial sexual activity were somewhat more likely than other young adults to have married without initially cohabiting (7 versus 5 percent).

Why might early dating and sexual activity be associated with the likelihood of cohabitation in early adulthood?  Those who postpone dating and sexual activity may have more traditional views concerning romantic relationships, which in turn may make them less likely to cohabit as young adults. Alternatively, those who postpone dating and sexual activity may have less interest in romantic relationships, making cohabitation less likely.

  • Those with high expectations of marriage as teenagers are more likely to marry and cohabit as young adults.

In the 2000 wave of the NLSY97, adolescents were asked to rate the likelihood that they would marry in the next five years. By examining their marital and cohabitation status in the 2005 wave of the NLSY97, we are able to examine how closely their expectations aligned with their actual relationship outcomes.

Teenagers who reported a greater than 50 percent chance of marriage in the next five years were more likely than other teens to marry over the subsequent five-year period; however, most did not marry during this interval. Among this group, 25 percent married over the next five years, compared with 12 to 13 percent among those who had lower expectations of the likelihood of marriage (Table IV.2). Teens who had expressed a high chance of marriage were also more likely than other teens to cohabit over the next five years (45 percent, compared with 33 to 39 percent among those with lower expectations of the likelihood of marriage). This latter result suggests that adolescent marriage expectations may reflect a more general desire to form a committed or serious relationship, rather than a specific desire for marriage at an early age.

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