Monday, July 18, 2016


Why Are So Many Millennials Having Children Out of Wedlock?” strikes me as an odd title for an article. I get the feeling, sometimes, that we see so many articles on childbearing among the unmarried because it’s the only time that most people will ever be able to use the term “wedlock” in a sentence and keep a straight face. (Or maybe it’s bait for older people and conservatives, who sometimes appear to view marriage as a life sentence for the crime of being sexual.)

But the general gist of this article is that “Millennials” are forgoing marriage because there aren’t that many decent “medium skilled” jobs out there, and so their prospective partners don’t bring in enough money to be good matches. And that’s where the article strikes me as strange. I understand the idea that the higher the level of one’s education and the more one is paid, the more attractive one becomes as a potential partner. When I was a young college freshman, driving my father’s Mercedes convertible onto campus immediately raised the interest level in me from what seemed like zero to a constant buzz. Love may make the world go around, but it shares that distinction with money, and the perception thereof.

So I understand the idea that: “Men without well-paying jobs are not seen as marriage material. ‘These men would be less desirable as marriage partners because of their reduced earning potential,’ writes [Andrew] Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins and the main author of the study.” Okay, this explains why people in the “Millennial” generation aren’t rushing to the altar. There simply aren’t that many men in the “well educated and well-paid” segment of the overall demographic. So we have “Out of Wedlock” taken care of.

What the article doesn’t explain, at all really, is the “Having Children” bit. It seems to take it as a given that the ages of 26 to 31 are just the time to have a child or three. And in doing so, leaves what strikes me as the important question of the article unanswered. Because in my mind’s ear, I can sort of hear the conversation that the article sort of assumes is taking place:

Jane: Jack’s a nice guy, and I’m going to have his baby, but I don’t know if I want to marry him.
Jill: What’s wrong with him?
Jane: He’s got a pretty shit job, and doesn’t make much money.
Jill: Less money than raising the child by yourself?
Because maybe it’s just me, but I always sort of figured that a guy who’s undesirable as a marriage partner because he’s broke would be pretty undesirable as a parenting partner for pretty much the same reason. I must have slept through the part of biology class when they went over how babies are made of money. And before you give me any grief about how the welfare system makes having children profitable - I worked in social service for years. Anyone who tells you that the state provides more money than it costs to raise a child is an idiot. I dealt with enough foster parents who felt that they’d been ripped off by having to meet a child’s expenses out of their own pockets to know.
They also found that in areas where men outnumber women, a women is more likely to get married before having a child. The reasoning for this has more to do with money than love. “This is consistent with the idea that when women are in short supply, they can bargain more effectively for marriage or a partnership prior to childbirth,” the authors write.
This reading of the data makes childbirth seem like as inevitable as one’s birthday - a fixed point in time that’s useful for judging whether or not other events have happened, but not a choice in and of itself. And maybe for many people born in the years between 1980 and 1986 having a child became seen as something other than a choice to be freely made. But if that’s the case - there’s a story in that, and one that we should likely know.

So, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to answer the question of “Why are so many unmarried Millennials having children?” a good place to start is why they seem compelled to have children when they know that they aren’t going to have a financially stable partner to offset some of the costs. Simply treating childbearing as a given ignores so much of what’s at stake in favor of a well-worn narrative of youthful poverty that we don’t learn anything useful.

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