The Nation's Pulse

Generation Unwed Motherhood

Perfecting an ethic handed down by the Boomers.

By 6.11.12

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One of the most alarming charts from Charles Murray's Coming Apart -- an unparalleled treatise on the decline of white America -- traces the increase in non-marital births during the 20th century. Between 1917 and 1965, rates of unwed motherhood in white America were well below 5 percent. Between 1965 and 2010, that figure spiked by over 25 percentage points.

And that's in white America alone. Including minority groups, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in the United States is now 40 percent, nearly half of all births. Perhaps more than any other cultural developments, unwed motherhood -- and absent fatherhood -- are having a disastrous economic and cultural impact on the United States.

Kay Hymowitz, writing in the Los Angeles Times, recently summarized the financial costs for households, particularly those headed by women ostensibly liberated by the feminist revolution:

Poverty remains relatively rare among married couples with children; the U.S. census puts only 8.8% of them in that category, up from 6.7% since the start of the Great Recession. But more than 40% of single-mother families are poor, up from 37% before the downturn. In the bottom quintile of earnings, most households are single people, many of them elderly. But of the two-fifths of bottom-quintile households that are families, 83% are headed by single mothers. The Brookings Institution's Isabel Sawhill calculates that virtually all the increase in child poverty in the United States since the 1970s would vanish if parents still married at 1970 rates.

In Coming Apart, Murray writes about the growing acceptance of single-parenthood households as both normal and good -- perhaps even desirable. "For the first time in human history, we now have societies in which a group consisting of a lone woman and her offspring is not considered to be sociologically incomplete -- not considered to be illegitimate," he writes.

Unfortunately, Generation Y (or Millennials) -- those Americans in their late teens, 20s, and early 30s -- is the primarily culprit for this rise in single motherhood. As a generation, we Gen Y'ers tend to take a lackadaisical approach to relationships, marriage, and childbearing. It's an approach that is having a seismic impact on American culture today, and will have an even greater impact in future decades as Generation Y gains more clout in the business, cultural, and political worlds.

Throughout history, marriage has been the foundation of communities, which in turn have been the foundation of nations. The proliferation of single-parent or cohabiting households has created significant instability in society, particularly for children. But as in many areas of life, Generation Y isn't too concerned about that. Habitual preoccupation with one's own happiness, to the exclusion of a life-long commitment to a spouse or the loyal parenting of a child, is the order of the day.

In past generations, it was commonly understood and accepted that adult relationships carried adult responsibilities. As a generation, however, twentysomethings tend to want their cake and eat it, too. We long for a loving marriage and the blessing of children -- one day, far in the future -- but our shortsighted relational choices don't align with those goals.

Writing in Time magazine, Lev Grossman outlines the relational fantasyland of "twixters," those young people stuck between adolescence and adulthood: 

Marrying late also means that twixters tend to have more sexual partners than previous generations. The situation is analogous to their promiscuous job-hopping behavior -- like Goldilocks, they want to find the one that's just right -- but it can give them a cynical, promiscuous vibe too. [Jeffrey] Arnett [a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland] is worried that if anything, twixters are too romantic. In their universe, romance is totally detached from pragmatic concerns and societal pressures, so when twixters finally do marry, they're going to do it for Love with a capital L and no other reason. "Everybody wants to find their soul mate now," Arnett says, "whereas I think, for my parents' generation -- I'm 47 -- they looked at it much more practically. I think a lot of people are going to end up being disappointed with the person that's snoring next to them by the time they've been married for a few years and they realize it doesn't work that way."

Despite the ruckus over economic inequality in the United States, the formula for achieving a middle-class lifestyle is relatively simple. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution has written, "If young people do three things -- graduate from high school, get a job and get married and wait until they're 21 before having a baby -- they have an almost 75 percent chance of making it into the middle class."

The problem is, few Millennials follow that advice. That's especially the case among lower-income women, who are more likely to have out-of-wedlock births and perpetuate the cycle of poverty for future generations. These "welfare moms," no longer primarily from minority communities, become dependent on the taxes of the rest of society.

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has condensed this truth into a tidy nugget of wisdom: "[The] dissolution of marriage in working-class and poor communities has also fueled the growth of government, as federal, state, and local governments spend more money on police, prisons, welfare, and court costs, trying to pick up the pieces of broken families."

As Millennials, we are responsible for our actions. But those actions don't occur in a vacuum. Many of us have been raised in a culture that glorifies permissive attitudes about sex, marriage, and divorce and puts children's needs on the back burner to adults' desires for fulfillment and gratification. It's an ethic created by Baby Boomers, and Generation Y is perfecting it.

It will only change if Millennials realize that traditional norms of marriage, sex, and relationships aren't just good for society -- they're good for individuals as well. A hook-up, no-strings-attached ethic is fun for the short term; it's unsatisfying and destructive in the long-term.

These developments -- along with others discussed by Murray in Coming Apart -- foreshadow the end of a stable, prosperous American culture. "The trends of the last half century matter a lot," Murray writes. "Many of the best and most exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless they are reversed."

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.