American men aren’t getting married until age 27 and women are waiting until they’re 25. Those average ages are historic highs, having risen steadily since the 1950s.
At the same time, the percentage of U.S. children born out of wedlock has reached 38 percent, and more than 40 percent of those children are born to cohabiting couples.
What do these kinds of “dramatic shifts in patterns of marriage and childbearing,” as the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) calls them, mean for adults, children and families? The department aims to find out through the formation of a new National Center for Marriage Research at BGSU.
Federal funding for the center is $4.35 million over five years. BGSU is contributing the balance of the $5.5 million budget for the project, which is modeled on the National Poverty Research Center supported by HHS for nearly 40 years.
Policymakers recognize the value of marriage and want to see new research generated on the subject, based on good questions and measurements, says sociologist Dr. Wendy Manning, the center’s co-director.
The idea is to bring researchers and policymakers together, as well as to learn leading practices in marriage education and train the next generation of marriage scholars, explains Dr. Susan Brown, sociology, the other co-director.
“Marriage is a hot topic,” says Brown, who has studied cohabitation among other family demography issues. “People are interested in families,” she adds, because they wonder if their experiences are similar to others.
Manning’s research has also included cohabitation, along with such topics as economic well-being of children and, with Brown, how people define families. In the latter study, they found that adolescents and their mothers often differ in their definition of family structure, particularly in stepfamilies where cohabitation is also involved.
“The American family is complicated, and a lot of children are experiencing a diverse set of families,” says Manning. Some stepsiblings don’t even consider each other as part of the same family, she continues, noting the need to account for the full range of experiences that children are going through.
As families have become increasingly complex, researchers are “racing to keep up,” addressing such questions as how diverse living arrangements affect individual well-being and what divorce and remarriage mean both for children and adults, Brown points out. To get answers, she says, they need a huge data set, such as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which has been repeated twice since the first, 1994-95 study of 20,000 children ages 12-17.
While the U.S. divorce rate has leveled off at about 50 percent—static since the early 1980s—other aspects of marriage have not stayed the same. The increase in the average ages of first-time American newlyweds raises the question of the nature of relationships during “emerging adulthood” (ages 18-24), says Manning, who adds that most of today’s married couples cohabitated before tying the knot.
Another difference now involves selection of a mate, according to Brown. Men and women alike are seeking the same thing in a spouse—someone with both the ability to be an economic provider, and an education. “The higher your level of education, whether you’re a man or a woman, the more likely you are to get married and stay married,” she says.
“Marriage is changing, so it is a moving target,” Manning adds, mentioning that the level of teen fertility is as high as it was in the ‘50s, but those babies of 50 years ago were born to married teens. “The shotgun marriage,” as Brown puts it, “has been replaced by shotgun cohabitation.”
In addition to the relationship between family structure and well-being, the center’s researchers—including other scholars from BGSU and elsewhere—will look at how family processes and resources mediate that relationship; factors associated with formation and maintenance of healthy marriages/relationships; how adolescents make the transition to healthy marriages; pathways of family formation outside marriage and how those families compare with married families, and the roles of marriage education programs in supporting healthy marriages and well-being.
Manning and Brown have previous experience with many of these issues not only through their research but also as director and associate director, respectively, of BGSU’s Center for Family and Demographic Research. CFDR incorporates perspectives from various disciplines, just as the marriage research center intends to do.
“Our experience with a center helped us compete” for the marriage center funding, says Manning, expressing the directors’ hope that the new center will give greater visibility to the field of family demography and help boost the number of student applications to BGSU.
Six students—two undergraduates, three graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow—will be affiliated with the center, which will also hire three or four staff members and have a 10-member national advisory committee, appointed by the directors and HHS representatives.
Among its many planned activities, the center will conduct workshops, seminars, conferences and small-grant competitions; build a marriage-related data and measurement infrastructure, and disseminate research findings by various means, including a Web site.