June 21, 2020
Changing Dynamics in Modern Fatherhood
It’s Father’s Day weekend, and with two teenage sons, I think often about what fatherhood will be like for them and other men of their generation. This is not an idle worry. Our nation, along with most other developed nations, experienced more turbulence in family structure over the past 50 years, than in the previous 1,000. Such dynamic change cannot help but challenge the role of young men as fathers.
One obvious example is the shocking and precipitous rise in non-marital births. As of the 1950s, fewer than one in 20 children were born to an unmarried mother. Today it is 40 percent. Of course, unmarried doesn’t mean there is not a father present. Formal marriage is less common as young people postpone marriage and cohabit more freely than a half century ago. My reading of research on the matter suggests that having two loving parents is a lot more important than legal distinctions or the gender of parents. Common sense would suggest this as well.
Non-marital births occur at different rates across race and ethnic groups. However, changes in the way we attribute race has changed, making some long-term comparisons more difficult. The most recent study I could find of fathers reports that 44 percent of black men, just over a third of Hispanic men and 18 percent of white men were unmarried when their first child was born. These numbers are consistent with the racial gap of mothers, but lower than overall births. In the same year, just over 72 percent of black children, 52 percent of Hispanic children and almost 27 percent of non-Hispanic white children were born to unmarried parents.
From 1980 until the present, the racial gap between non-marital births shrank. Much of this is due to a leveling off of unmarried births among black women that began in the early 1990s. Today, the rate of unmarried births and teen births for all groups are lower than before the Great Recession. One interesting paper reports that the popular MTV show “16 and Pregnant” caused about a third of the decline in births, with worsening economic conditions of the Great Recession explaining most of the rest.
Explanations for the racial gap in non-marital births remain incomplete. One hypothesis is that discrimination in arrests and convictions fell unequally on men of different races. This is surely true, but a man of any race is still ten times more likely to be the father of an unmarried child than to be a convicted felon. Poor marriage prospects due to incarceration aren’t large enough to explain non-marital birth differences.
Another theory is that economic disadvantage reduces marriageability of men. Again, this is surely true, as Jane Austen made clear, but the differences in economic conditions between racial groups is only a fraction of the difference between non-marital births. The only really strong conclusion about race and non-marital births is that the differences are shrinking, and the rate of non-marital births slowly declining.
The one area about family formation that is most pronounced is the role of educational attainment. Women with a four-year degree or higher have non-marital birth rates of about 10 percent. For those with a high school degree or less, the unwed birth rate is six times higher. At the same time, fertility rates for better educated women are lower. A woman with a bachelor’s degree will have, on average, fewer than 1.8 kids, while an average woman without a high school diploma will have more than 2.5 children.
The most believable studies about non-martial births connect educational attainment of both parents, rather than just the marriage prospects of men. However, with women’s educational attainment dramatically outpacing that of men, this dynamic is certain to change in the coming decades.
In thinking about the role of fatherhood in the coming decades, educational attainment seems to play a dominant role in whom today’s young men will marry and father children with. Race matters less than at any time in our history, with the share of interracial marriages doubling in 30 years. Today, one in six new marriages are between people of a different race or ethnicity.
However, men of the next generation are very likely to marry women with similar educational backgrounds. With women vastly outpacing men in educational attainment, an increasing share of men will marry women with higher levels of educational attainment. The role of educational attainment in what economists so romantically call ‘family formation’ has never been higher.
Men are increasingly likely to marry and father children with women whose education, rather than race or religion, is similar to theirs. Marriage rates between men and women who finished college are almost 50 percent higher than among those who did not complete high school. Moreover, divorce rates among those with a high school degree or less are four times that of college grads.
For young men of today, family characteristics and those of fatherhood are likely to be shaped by educational attainment rather than other demographic factors. This is very different from the experience of their fathers and grandfathers.
About the Author
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