Emily Nichols is 20. She lives in Oregon and attends community college. She doesn't have a job right now for health reasons. She found out several weeks ago that she is pregnant.
She and her boyfriend, Andy, "are taking it one step at a time." One step at a time, however, doesn't entail marriage, at least right now.
"I figure marriage will come along eventually, but it's not a top priority. I don't need it to survive. If I do get married, I want to do it for the right reasons -- well-thought-out and well-rounded reasons."
Nichols views marriage as a symbolic enterprise rather than a necessity. Education, career and other personal goals take precedence.
"It may be that this is the first generation of women who feel like they need to take care of themselves first, before marriage," she said.
Sociologists agree. Many young women like Emily Nichols are opting to delay marriage in order to "take care of themselves first." How they do so varies. Some women consider marriage and children a distraction from their career goals.
Nichols represents a generation of young women deconstructing the traditional passageway to adulthood -- and demonstrating that education plays a crucial role in the reconstruction.
The price of education
Thirty years ago, the median age for a woman to marry for the first time was 20, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Now it's 25. The age that women have a first child has also risen in the last 30 years -- from 22 to 25.
Sociologists and demographers cite numerous reasons.
One reason -- specifically associated with privileged young adults -- is that they want to prolong the period between college graduation and adulthood responsibilities. They want to spend a few years barreling down mountains in Colorado or backpacking in Europe before settling down. They want to find themselves. Yet they remain to some degree financially dependent upon their family.
Another reason for the delay is the job market. Getting a good job is a competitive endeavor. More and more, young adults must go back to school -- be it college or grad school -- to set themselves apart from their peers.
"Young people must seek out further vocational or professional education or other means of entering into the labor market with occupational specific skills," wrote Elizabeth Fussell and Anne Gauthier in an essay that appears in the book, "On the Frontier of Adulthood."
In other words, to get a good job, you need to spend a few more years in school -- which leads to yet another reason for the delay in finding a spouse and having a baby: the price of supplemental education.
"Everyone realizes the importance of college, but college has become more expensive and the wherewithal of families to help is going down ... thus the reason people are waiting to marry and have kids," said Frank Furstenberg, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who tracks marriage trends.
Essentially, young adults, especially women, who are graduating from college at a higher rate than men these days, are delaying the settled-down lifestyle because they feel the need to get a better -- or at least specific -- education to further their careers and themselves.
"I want to do what is important to me ... not worry about finding some mystical man who is going to complete me," said Jackie Echegaray, a 25 year old who works at an international human rights fund in Washington, D.C.
Echegaray spent half her childhood growing up in Texas, the other half in Lima, Peru. "I have a dual background," she said. Raised in a lower middle-class household, she went to an accelerated high school and later graduated from Northwestern University. She double-majored in political science and history with a focus on Latin America.
Three days after commencement, her boyfriend of nearly four years proposed marriage. "It was really unexpected." She accepted.
She moved to D.C. soon after. Her boyfriend moved to Texas for law school. "Everything was fine," she said, until her fiance came to Washington for an internship the summer 2004. The relationship "deteriorated" -- and ended the following February, she said.
"What it made me realize, is that I'm not really ready to be married, and I had to be comfortable with never getting married and never having children," said Echegaray, who is now considering a move to England to study human rights law.
Echegaray doesn't want to sacrifice her ambitions for a husband and child, a common conviction among well-educated women -- but not one held strongly by women without college degrees.
Like Echegaray, Tina Jackson is also postponing marriage. However unlike Echegaray, Jackson decided not to postpone having a baby.
Jackson is 20 and lives with her mother in the Bronx, N.Y. Her daughter, Aalayjah, which means "to blossom, to be fruitful," is 5 months old.
Jackson didn't plan on getting pregnant. She was taking birth control, but "it didn't do well with me," so she stopped taking it, and two weeks later she got pregnant.
The father, Jackson's boyfriend until recently, sees the baby often, but "he doesn't know the stress of having a baby," she said.
"Next time I know to be married," said Jackson, who initially wanted to marry her boyfriend but didn't think he felt the same way.
She left school to care for Aalayjah, but now intends to enroll in a local continuing adult education program and earn a certificate to be a drug abuse counselor, then eventually get her bachelor's and master's degrees in clinical therapy.
Jackson said that she wants to get married, but if marriage doesn't happen until she's in her 30s, "then that's fine."
"Higher-educated women are postponing both marriage and childbearing. Less-educated women are postponing marriage but not childbearing," wrote David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks of Harvard University in a 2004 report, "The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States Since 1960."
Less-educated women, especially less-educated black women, are now having their first child at age 22, up from age 19 in the 1970s. (Non-Hispanic white women, on the other hand, are now giving birth to a first child at age 26.)
One reason is that less-educated women, similar to their educated counterparts, are looking for a quality and supportive second-half, said Maria Kefalas, a professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. These women may be having kids early, "but they still have a high standard of marriage."
The available men, however, are not ready to live up to those higher standards, suggest Ellwood and Jencks in their report.
However, less-educated women are still having children early. Ellwood and Jencks point to the labor market, which doesn't offer many opportunities for uneducated women. To compensate, these women have children. "Nurturing children can provide avenues for success and validation that the market does not provide."
Ellwood and Jencks also say that a lack of knowledge about contraception is partly to blame for high birth rates among less-educated women.
Kefalas even suggested that contraception is ignored. Young women and their fellahs talk about children early in the relationship. "Childbearing becomes part of the courtship ritual."
The evolution of traditionalism
Only 7 percent of 18-to-25 year olds are "very worried" about
finding a spouse, compared to 35 percent who are "very worried"
about getting a sexually transmitted disease, according to a report
released at the Brookings Institution in 2005, OMG! How Generation
Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era.
Clearly, sex supersedes marriage and childbearing on the priority list of young adults.
So, is marriage dying?
No, said Kefalas. Young women in the South and Midwest continue to marry, bare children in their early 20s and otherwise uphold the familial customs of the grandparents. "These are the kids who don't go to college or move to areas like New York City." They're the ones who live in the "pockets of traditionalism ... in places like Idaho, Iowa and parts of Pennsylvania."
At the same time, many Hispanic and Asian families -- ever more prevalent
in American society -- maintain the married-with-children model,
wrote demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.
The pathway to marriage and childbearing isn't crumbling, it's evolving.
Central to this evolution is the "decoupling" of marriage and childbearing, said Harvard's Jencks in an interview.
For instance, a young man and woman may marry at 25, but they'll wait several years before having children. Or a young woman may have a child at 20 but wait until she's almost 30 to marry.
However, Kefalas points out that lower-income, less-educated women who bare children first and marry later are more prone to divorce, while higher-educated women have a relatively low divorce rate.
What might this mean for the future: cohabitation -- unwed couples living together, with or without children. While some people may find this trend depraved, young women like Emily Nichols are more concerned about building their lives as individuals than through the traditional family route.
-- By Oliver Read, Generation Next