Of all the changes to which Baby Boomers have had to adjust in recent decades, none has been more revolutionary than the meteoric rise of out-of-wedlock babies. Fifty years ago only 10% of births in America were to unmarried women; by 2017 that figure had skyrocketed to 40% for women who were either solo or cohabitating. By now we all know a family that has had this experience and that family may very well be our own.
What happened to cause this monumental shift
Several explanations have been offered, none definitive. According to some researchers, the end of shotgun marriages was the main driver. They say that until the early 1970s, the shotgun marriage was the norm in premarital sexual relations. As one man said, “If a girl gets pregnant you married her. There wasn’t no choice. So I married her.”
Others say it was the decline of the stigma of unwed motherhood. This transformation in attitudes was captured by the New York Times: “In the ‘old days’ of the 1960s, ’50s, and ’40s, pregnant teenagers were pariahs, banished from schools, ostracized by their peers or scurried out of town to give birth in secret.” Today they are “supported and embraced in their decision to give birth, keep their babies, continue their education, and participate in school activities.”
Still others contend, although it seems counterintuitive, that it was the availability of the birth control pill and legalized abortion. Becoming pregnant no longer meant you were a “bad girl,” who was flouting society’s taboo against premarital sex; everyone was doing it. Moreover, with movie stars bragging about giving birth to a “love child,” young women now had role models for keeping their illegitimate offspring.
Who is having babies out of wedlock
Those most responsible for the dramatic increase in of out-of-wedlock babies are white women. Their rate of nonmarital births has nearly tripled since 1980, the fastest of any ethnic group. The group ranges from young, poor, uneducated women who are living with a boyfriend or their parents to older, highly successful career women who feel it’s their last chance to have a child. Government statistics don’t track how many unwed women are mothers by choice, but there is evidence their numbers are substantial. California Cryobank, one of the major sperm banks in the U.S., says about a third of its clients are single mothers by choice, and this figure is increasing.
With so many young people getting married later or not marrying at all, cohabitators loom ever larger as procreators. In 1997, the first year for which data on cohabitation are available, 20% of unmarried parents who lived with their children were also living with a partner. Since that time, their share has risen to 35%. One thing has not changed, though: solo parents remain overwhelmingly female. The percentage of unmarried parents who are solo fathers has held steady at 12%.
Throughout America, the average age of unmarried moms is 21. Teen pregnancies everywhere are down dramatically, dropping in Philadelphia alone from 2,525 to just 126 between 2005 and 2017, according to census figures. Experts say that high school sex education and the Affordable Care Act, which has increased the supply of contraceptives, deserve the credit.
The United States is by no means the only country experiencing a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births. In 2016 of the world’s 140 million births, about 15 percent - or 21 million – occurred out of wedlock. There are major differences, though, from society to society. In about 25 countries, including China, India and much of Africa, the proportion of such births is typically around 1 percent. In another 25 countries, mostly in Latin America, it is more than 60 percent, and this represents a big jump from just 50 years ago.
Accepted but not applauded
Many Americans view the increase in unmarried parenthood – solo mothering especially – as a negative trend for society. In a Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of adults said that more single women raising children on their own was bad for society, and 48% said the same about more unmarried couples raising children. Older Americans and those with higher levels of education were especially likely to view these trends as bad for society.
Even so, other data suggest a slight uptick in acceptance. In 1994, 35% of adults agreed or strongly agreed that single parents could raise children as well as two married parents, according to data from the General Social Survey; by 2012 those in agreement had risen to 48%.
Love it or hate it, we all need to adjust to it because—given the trend toward single parenting and cohabitation—the out-of-wedlock family member is here to stay.
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