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Family’s Place in America’s Social Fabric

The Social Breakdown

November 13, 2023

The family is arguably the most basic building block of community life.[i] But even as Americans continue to say their own families are centrally important in their lives[ii], family life in the United States more broadly has changed dramatically in recent decades. At the same time, adults are finding satisfaction in their relationships with friends and coworkers. Many say having close friends and an enjoyable job are the keys to a fulfilling life.

How the American family has changed

U.S. marriage and fertility rates have declined over the long term, as has been widely documented.[iii] Today, only half of adults ages 18 and older are married, down from 69% in 1970. Some 31% have never been married, up from 17% in 1970. Women are having fewer children, and when they do, they’re less likely than in the past to be raising those children with a spouse or partner.

The consequence is that children are now much less likely to be in a household with two married parents.[iv] In 2021, 64% of children were in this type of family, down from 82% in 1970. Four-in-ten babies born in 2021 were born to an unmarried mother.[v]

These trends differ widely by educational attainment, as well as by race and ethnicity, as family life in America has become more fractured along these lines than in the past.

Relatively few Americans see marriage, kids as key to a fulfilling life

Amid these changes, the public may be reassessing the importance of marriage and parenthood in the broader context of a life well-lived.

A recent Pew Research Center survey asked Americans what factors lead to a fulfilling life – not for them personally, but for people generally.[vi]

The survey found that about seven-in-ten Americans say having a job or career they enjoy is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. And 61% say the same about having close friends.

In contrast, only about one-in-four say having children or being married is highly important – similar to the share who say this about having a lot of money.

Responses to this question differ along demographic lines. Interestingly, men are more likely than women to say being married is highly important to live a fulfilling life (28% vs. 18%) and to say the same about having children (29% vs. 22%). Even so, job satisfaction and having close friends top the list for men and women alike. In fact, women place a little more importance on career enjoyment than men do.

Perhaps not surprisingly, married adults place more importance on being married than those who are single: 29% say being married is extremely or very important for people to live a fulfilling life, while 15% of unmarried people say the same. And parents are more likely than those who don’t have children to say having kids is highly important (31% compared with 18% among adults without children).

Americans ages 65 and older are the most likely age group to say being married is highly important for living a fulfilling life. Those younger than 30, in turn, are the most likely to prioritize having a lot of money.

Parents prioritize financial milestones for their kids over marriage, having children

These findings echo what we heard in a 2022 survey of parents with children younger than 18. The survey asked parents how important it is to them that their children reach certain milestones as adults.[vii]

We found that parents place a great deal of importance on their children being financially independent and having jobs or careers they enjoy. Roughly nine-in-ten (88%) say it’s extremely or very important to them that their children achieve each of these things as adults.

At the same time, relatively small shares of parents prioritize their children getting married or having children: Just 21% and 20%, respectively, say it’s highly important to them that their children do each of these things.

It’s hard to know what to make of these attitudes and what they mean for the future of the family. It’s possible that Americans see certain outcomes – like job security and financial independence – as foundational. And they may see others – like marriage and parenthood – as the finishing touches on an adult life. This is reminiscent of Andrew Cherlin’s theory that marriage has become a “capstone,” rather than a “cornerstone.”[viii]

Many say key trends shaping family life are neither positive nor negative for the country’s future

The public isn’t overly concerned about the broad trends that are reshaping marriage in the United States. Majorities of adults expect there to be neither a positive nor negative impact on the future of the country from fewer people ever getting married (54% say this), more couples living together without being married (55%) and people getting married later in life (57%). And nearly half of Americans say there will be neither a positive nor negative impact on the country from people having fewer children.

The public is more downbeat about the trend toward fewer children being raised by married parents. The largest share of Americans (49%) say this will have a negative impact on the future of the U.S. More broadly, the public is more pessimistic than optimistic about the American family. Four-in-ten say, in thinking about the future of the country, they are pessimistic about the institution of marriage and the family, 25% are optimistic and 29% are neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

Family as a source of social capital

If family ties – mainly in the form of marriage and parenthood – are weaker in the future, it may be that other types of relationships become stronger sources of social capital.

Our 2023 survey found that most Americans see close friends as important to a fulfilling life, and a subsequent survey found that most people do, in fact, have close friends.[ix]

Work relationships also could be important. Our research on the workplace shows that for employed Americans, among the greatest sources of satisfaction at work are the relationships they have with their coworkers and even their bosses.[x]

Of course, the family provides certain things that these other types of relationships may not, including a common history, a shared set of values and a potential safety net when needed.

The public tends to believe that adult children have a responsibility to provide care and financial support to elderly parents who need that type of assistance. As the U.S. population ages, current trends in marriage and fertility could contribute to a growing number of older adults who don’t have spouses or children to turn to when they need support.[xi]

Our research also shows a growing gap in well-being between partnered and unpartnered adults. Compared with those who are married or cohabiting, unpartnered adults – whose ranks have increased substantially in recent decades – tend to have less education, are less likely to be employed and earn less money. [xii] Other research suggests that they fare worse than married and cohabiting adults when it comes to certain health outcomes.[xiii]

All of this suggests that the benefits and built-in support system often associated with family may be available to fewer people in the future. It remains to be seen what could fill the gap and help people feel connected and cared for in the future.

[i] Scott Winship and Thomas O’Rourke,“The Mainline Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Social Capitalism,” The Social Breakdown (AEI, May 3, 2023).

[ii] Lydia Saad, “Community, Hobbies and Money Grow in Importance to Americans,” (Gallup, July 19, 2023).

[iii] Carolina Aragao, Kim Parker, Shannon Greenwood, Chris Baronavski and John Carlo Mandapat, “The Modern American Family: Key Trends in Marriage and Family Life,” (Pew Research Center, September 14, 2022).

[iv] Melissa Kearney, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023).

[v] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “National Vital Statistics Reports,” (Volume 72, Number 1, January 2023).

[vi] Kim Parker and Rachel Minkin, “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family,” (Pew Research Center, September 14, 2023).

[vii] Rachel Minkin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Parenting in America Today,” (Pew Research Center, January 24, 2023).

[viii] Andrew Cherlin, “Marriage Has Become a Trophy,” (The Atlantic, March 20, 2018).

[ix] Isabel Goddard, “What Does Friendship Look Like in America?” (Pew Research Center, October 12, 2023).

[x] Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Kim Parker, “How Americans View Their Jobs,” (Pew Research Center, March 30, 2023).

[xi] U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, “An Invisible Tsunami: ‘Aging Alone’ and Its Effect on Older Americans, Families, and Taxpayers,” (January 24, 2019).

[xii] Richard Fry and Kim Parker, “Rising Share of U.S. Adults Are Living Without a Spouse or Partner,” (Pew Research Center, October 5, 2021).

[xiii] Brienna Perelli-Harris, Stefanie Hoherz, Fenaba Addo, et al, “Do Marriage and Cohabitation Provide Benefits to Health in Mid-Life? The Role of Childhood Selection Mechanisms and Partnership Characteristics Across Countries,” Population Research and Policy Review 37 (2018): 703-728.