Only about a fifth of American parents say it’s important to them that their children get married and have a family. This is despite the fact that most parents find raising children to be rewarding and enjoyable, and almost a third of them say that being a parent is the most important part of their identity. What the vast majority of American parents—about 90%—do want for their children is financial independence and a job they enjoy doing.
In a new study on parental attitudes released today by Pew Research, almost half the parents surveyed say that it is not too important or not important at all to them if their children get married or have children. Even a college degree is more important than a family. As one 46-year-old-father in the survey put it, he was raising his children “with [an] emphasis on academic performance and attaining intellectual potential.”
The lopsidedness of the findings surprised family researchers and sociologists. “I think it’s pretty provocative,” says Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies family and inequality. “It’s a much bigger difference between financial independence and getting married than I expected.” Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the “quite stunning” results were “not a very good sign. We have a culture that is defined by loneliness right now, and what’s going to contribute to that more than the decline of family?”
Pew researchers said that while it is striking how many parents are de-emphasizing getting married and having children, it is not the first time they have seen this trend. “We ran a survey in 2018 with teens and they similarly were prioritizing career satisfaction over getting married and having kids one day,” says Pew research associate Rachel Minkin. She pointed to several demographic shifts, including the rising age at which people get married and the fact that many young people are waiting longer to leave their parents’ homes as further evidence of the shift away from family formation.
Given how much parents seem to enjoy raising children, what could be behind the wan enthusiasm for further propagation of the family line? Sociologists have several theories.
It’s the economy
In the last several decades, and especially in the last two years, the economy has changed in profound ways and there’s more uncertainty ahead. Parents seek a solid landing place. “They’re valuing the necessities over the things that are optional,” says Cohen. “So they’re valuing a career over marriage because they want their kids at least to be able to take care of themselves and survive in our troubled times. And if they can pull off a marriage and family, so much the better, but it’s not the priority.”
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There are bigger demographic shifts at play here, says historian and family researcher Stephanie Coontz, who is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. “The kind of answers you’re getting is because parents expect both their sons and daughters to have to work, whether they marry or not, and whether they divorce or not,” she says. That wasn’t necessarily the case when these parents were being raised, and they’ve seen the changes during their adulthood. “They’re aware that work quality has been deteriorating and and the work demands have been rising, so these kind of questions, I think, are very foremost in their mind.”
It’s the state of the world
The Pew survey also found that parents’ biggest worry for their children is that they will struggle with anxiety or depression and their second biggest worry is that their child will be bullied. These two were greater concerns than their kids being kidnapped, getting beaten up, or having problems with drugs or alcohol. High levels of unease about what the future may hold may be leading parents to avoid promoting huge life decisions like starting a family. “It’s normal for marriage and childbearing to go down during big crises,” says Cohen, who notes that marriage and childbirth rates cratered in the early years of the pandemic. “You could chalk it up to uncertainty, insecurity about the future. People are adopting a scarcity mentality and saying what matters is survival.” Pew researchers noted that Hispanic respondents, who score at the highest level of worry about everything, also have a higher preference for a college degree than white parents.
It’s a life-stage thing
All the parents in the survey have children under the age of 18, and some observers suggest that the lack of emphasis on marriage and family may be just because the parents are not at that stage yet. “It may be that they’ll do what I saw my generation of boomers do, which is we didn’t think at all about marriage and babies for our kids; we thought a lot about where were they going to go to college and what kind of work they could really do,” says Hymowitz. “And then once they got into their 20s, everybody wanted grandchildren.”
But Pew researchers said that while parental emphasis on college increases among parents of older children, who are closer to college, attitudes towards marriage do not change no matter the age of the child. Other researchers pointed to the fact that young people don’t generally think about marriage and children until they feel financially stable, and capable of sustaining a family, and the parents feel the same way.
It’s hard work, especially for moms
Interestingly, fathers in the survey rate marriage and family as more important for their children than mothers do. Fathers are also less likely than mothers to find parenting stressful and tiring, which may suggest another factor at play; parents don’t want their children to have the same level of stress they have. “Although a high percentage of parents report parenting as rewarding and enjoyable all or most of the time, most also say that it is harder than expected and they feel judgment from various sources,” says Allen Sabey, a therapist and assistant professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “Parenting provides both joy and stress, but then considering the biggest parental worries of anxiety and depression, being economically stable and comfortable may be viewed as more likely to ease stress as adults.”
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It’s a move away from traditions to independence
Another finding in the Pew survey is that most parents are not particularly bothered about pressing their religious and political beliefs onto their children, preferring to emphasize ethical and honest behavior and the acceptance of people who are different from them. “The intergenerational transmission of traditions seems to have really slipped here,” says Cohen. “Marriage and children are a way of carrying forward the family tradition, and so is religion.”
Attitudes have changed enough that it is perfectly possible for people to decline to get married or have children without anyone looking askance at them. Instead of following these traditions, American parents are encouraging their children to choose their own path. “Marriage and children are no longer viewed as crucial for life satisfaction and fulfillment. I think American society is continuing to move towards fulfillment and success through independence,” says Sabey. “Having financial independence and an enjoyable career are less dependent on others and thus more in one’s own control towards ‘succeeding’ as adults.”
For some, these are dangerous choices. “These new findings from Pew suggest that parents are downgrading or de-emphasizing the importance of marriage and family for their own children, which may reinforce this broader shift away from family life that we’re seeing play out across much of the developed world,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and director of the pro-marriage Institute for Family Studies. He notes that parents are choosing a path that for their children that emphasizes “résumé virtue,” short-term career building, rather than “eulogy virtue,” one that will enhance their whole life. “If you look at the data, what you see is that marital status and marital quality tend to be a better predictor of people’s happiness, for instance, than their educational attainment, their income, or job satisfaction.”
Others find the Pew data encouraging—to a point. “It’s so important to recognize that this is coming from the greater sense that parents have today that kids are their own people, their own individuals that they don’t want them to be cookie-cutter replicas of you,” says Coontz, who notes that people still want to get married, that parents are generally delighted when their kids do, and even more delighted when they have children, but they just don’t want to pressure them into it. “But they’re telling them if you want to make individual choices, in this kind of inegalitarian high-pressure society, you’d better prepare to get financially independent. And, yes, try your best to get a job that you like, because you’ll be working all your life.”