Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com

Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com

In recent weeks, media outlets including the New York Times have reported what once would have been a startling finding: a majority of babies born to women under age 30 are being born, specifically, to unwed mothers. The Times gave a nuanced account by reaching out to social scientists to consider whether marriage still counts as one of the most important legitimators of a “family.”

One group, college graduates, appears to be resisting this trend. The highly educated are overwhelmingly waiting until after tying the knot to have children and, thus helping make a certain type of family structure (married with kids) an indicator of a new class divide. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg claims “marriage has become a luxury good,” in reference to the social and economic capital. They are, Furstenberg tells the Times, increasingly reserved for the highly educated. Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, argues particularly that there’s a specific quality among educated men that makes them more likely to give women equal authority in a relationship: “they are more willing to play the partner role.”

Another question raised by article asks, for parenting, does marriage really matter? After all, according to the data almost all the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. A study by University of Michigan sociologists Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland found that, in the United States, cohabitating parents are twice as likely to split as married parents (according to Smock and Greenland, two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned ten).

The Times also sought to answer why some of these couples with children decided to remain unmarried. The article states, “[F]ifty years ago, researchers have found, as many as a third of American marriages were precipitated by a pregnancy, with couples marrying to maintain respectability.” So what has changed? According to some of the sources the article’s writers spoke with, if cohabitating couples married, their official household income would rise, resulting in a possible loss of government benefits. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, government policies like no-fault divorce signal that “marriage is not as fundamental to society” as it once was.

Finally, Johns Hopkins’ sociologist Andrew Cherlin was called upon to discuss what Americans expect from marriage now that it is no longer merely a matter of practical support. That is, why do people keep getting married at all? Cherlin, author of The Marriage Go-Round, maintains, “[F]amily life is no longer about playing the social role of father or husband or wife, it’s more about individual satisfaction and self-development.”

Indeed, the simple fact that these data depicting generational shifts in family composition may seem alarming to some readers or mundane to others shows that the question of marriage remains important in the U.S. The New York Times’ ability to reach out to social scientists, though, allows for an article rich with context, scholarship, and a conceptual link to guide readers from a statistic about unwed mothers to a glimpse at larger social forces at work in the U.S.