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Prioritizing Money Over Marriage, Today’s Parents Are Making a Big Mistake

Deseret News

February 2, 2023

As parents of teens, we have kids who are beginning to think about their adult future—including college, career and family. One recent conversation Alysse had with her 17-year-old daughter is indicative of the pressure many young people feel to prioritize career and income.

“Why do I have to choose a career path right now?” her daughter wanted to know. “What if I just want to get married and have kids?”

At first, Alysse was startled and even offended by this question. As the first woman in her family to graduate from college, she has always prioritized education. Since leaving school, she has always been employed. And as a wife and mother, she has viewed work and family as not mutually exclusive. This is why she responded, “You can do both. You don’t need to choose one over the other.” 

Likewise, Brad expects his teen daughters to attend college, work and marry in the next decade-and-a-half.

But reading the new Pew Research Center report, “Parenting in America Today,” it became abundantly clear that most parents in the United States are not like us. 

A large majority of American parents are prioritizing work and money for their children over other life goals, including marriage and parenthood. The report, which is based on a survey of 3,757 U.S. adults with children under 18, gave parents a list of five future achievements for their kids: college education, marriage, having children, a satisfying job/career and financial independence.

Given these options, the overwhelming majority of parents prioritized financial independence and an enjoyable career for their children’s future over the other choices: 88% said it was either “very” or “extremely” important that their kids become financially independent and the same share of parents said it was important that their children have an enjoyable career as an adult. And 41% said it was very or extremely important that their child earn a college degree.

But only about one-fifth of parents said getting married (20%) and having kids (21%) are “very important” or “extremely important” to their kids’ future. Even more disturbing is that nearly half of the parents said getting married one day (46%) and having kids of their own (46%) were “not too important” or “not at all important.”

We understand why, in an increasingly precarious economy, a majority of parents would believe that finding a good job and earning a decent income are important for their children’s future. But it should trouble all of us that only a minority of parents would also see marriage and family life as central goals, and even more so that nearly 50% would say that marriage and parenthood are basically unimportant

What might be behind these findings? We believe there are five cultural factors that help explain why so many parents today are prioritizing money and work over marriage and family for their kids. 

The decline of marriage

It’s difficult to view getting married and having kids as beneficial life goals when you haven’t witnessed many good marriages yourself. Men and women are spending less time in marriage over the course of their life than ever before, as marriage rates continue to decline around the world, especially among lower-income Americans and those without a college degree.

Much of this decline is due to the delay in marriage, as the age of first marriage for men is now 30 and for women is 28. At the same time, cohabitation continues to increase in popularity and practice, with an estimated 70% of couples living together before marriage, and about 65% of young adults believing that moving in together is a good way to improve their chances of a lasting marriage. 

Additionally, many parents today do not have the experience of a happy family life and strong parental marriage to look back upon as they reflect on what they want for their own kids. About half of adults today witnessed a divorce or break-up in their own parents’ relationship. The Institute for Family Studies research fellows David and Amber Lapp have explained that “anxiety about the prospect of divorce” is one reason young working-class Americans tell them they’re reluctant to marry. Many adults today are skeptical about their own, as well as their children’s, chances of finding a good spouse and having a healthy, stable marriage, understandably dimming their interest in steering them toward marriage and family life.

In fact, Rachel Minkin, one of the Pew report’s authors, told us: “Parents who are married (23%) are more likely than those who are living with a partner (16%) and those who are not married or living with a partner (16%) to say it is extremely or very important to them that their children get married when they are adults.”

By contrast, she added, “there are no significant differences by marital status for the shares of parents saying it is extremely or very important their children be financially independent, have jobs or careers they enjoy, earn a college degree, and have children as adults.”

The capstone view

Even parents who really do want to see their kids grow up to get married and have kids might see starting a family as something to consider much further down the road—only after they achieve a certain level of career and financial success. That’s due to the cultural shift that has taken place around where marriage and family life fit into men and women’s life plans.

Rather than being a foundational part of adulthood, as it was in the past, marriage today is seen as more of what sociologist Andrew Cherlin described as a “capstone” to a successful adult life, one that comes only after individuals have achieved a measure of educational and economic success.

For some, this leads to a rejection of marriage altogether. As Brad (along with Nick Wolfinger and Charles Stokes) has written elsewhere, “The advent of the capstone model of marriage means that more Americans see marriage as out of their reach, given the perceived economic and emotional requirements to get married nowadays.”

The rise of ‘workism’

But there is another factor here that should not be overlooked. Institute for Family Studies fellows Lyman Stone and Laurie DeRose have described it as the rise in “workism,” meaning the higher value that many men and women today give to career and income as significant sources of life satisfaction. In an Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institute report,Stone and DeRose found that workist attitudes across the globe are driving family formation down.

Work-family conflict also may play a role here. Too many people mistakenly view marriage and family as conflicting (or competing) with satisfying work and career success. Unfortunately, this is a view that many young people have absorbed. As one teenager told The New York Times, I do have dreams of getting married one day, but it scares me. A lot. I have many ambitions in life, but I do feel that sometimes they contradict each other.”

Parents who have adopted a more workist attitude, we believe, are more likely to discount marriage and family life in favor of work and money as sources of meaning and happiness for their own children. 

Ignorance about benefits

This brings us to another factor behind the Pew report’s findings: a general lack of knowledge about the vast and lifelong benefits of marriage and family. As therapist Allen Sabey told Time in response to the Pew study, “Marriage and children are no longer viewed as crucial for life satisfaction and fulfillment. . . . Having financial independence and an enjoyable career are less dependent on others and thus more in one’s own control towards ‘succeeding’ as adults.”

But what these parents don’t know is that a large body of research shows that money and a career are not the keys to happiness. In fact, the No. 1 predictor of overall life satisfaction is marital quality—how happy people are in their marriage. 

This pattern comes out in a new book, “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Study of Happiness,”based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The book reports that social ties, such as those found between family and friends, are better predictors than professional and financial success of our happiness and health over the course of life.

A summary of the study’s findings explains: “Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genetics.” 

This new Harvard study, then, is but one indication that today’s parents’ focus on work and money is misplaced. 

Cultural messaging

Finally, we must not forget the corrosive effects of cultural messaging surrounding marriage and parenthood today. Much of today’s popular culture tells us that marriage and children are an obstacle to individual happiness, that parents especially are unhappy, and that parenting is just too hard. Yet research continues to show that married people are generally happier than unmarried people. The research on parental happiness is more complex, but we’re seeing more surveys today suggesting parents are reporting happier and more meaningful lives than their childless peers. 

The Pew study, for example, found that the majority of parents say parenting is rewarding and enjoyable and consider the job as “the most or one of the most important aspects of who they are.” Having children also comes with future benefits, like someone to take care of us in our old age—and perhaps grandchildren. As journalist Jim Dalrymple put it, “Having kids is an investment in less lonely, more secure elder years.” 

The Pew report’s findings highlight the unsettling truth that too many parents today do not appreciate how much marriage and family matter to their own children’s future well-being. Based on our conversations with young adults, today’s parents often encourage their teens and young adult children to postpone or discount love and marriage in favor of focusing on education, work and financial success.

Not only are they doing their sons and daughters a disservice, given the value of kith and kin for their own kids’ future sense of meaning and happiness, but they are also doing themselves a disservice. Because in a world where marriage and fertility are cratering, they may find themselves in the final chapters of their lives with few or no grandchildren. And then, all the money in the world won’t make up for the absence of family ties across the generations.

About the Authors

W. Bradford Wilcox