The Polarization of Family Formation and of the Labor Market: Are They Related?

Awarded Scholars:
Andrew J. Cherlin, Johns Hopkins University
Project Date:
Jul 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Future of Work

Over the past couple of decades we have seen a polarization of family formation patterns in the United States, with young adults with a four-year college degree waiting until after they are married to have children and young adults with only a high school education having children while unmarried. Research on marriage suggests that those in the less-advantaged education and income groups are as likely as others to want to marry, but that they do not feel sufficiently secure economically to make the commitment.

This "marriage gap" has coincided with a polarization of the American labor market, with expanding opportunities at the high and low ends of the labor market, and a hollowing out of the middle. The decline in middle-skill (both white- and blue-collar) jobs has had a significant and negative effect on the earnings and labor market participation of workers without a college degree, and especially so for males, who are increasingly concentrated in low-pay service sector occupations.

Johns Hopkins University social demographer Andrew Cherlin will examine the correlation between local labor market conditions and patterns of family formation. Is it the case that young men who experience more adverse labor market conditions are more likely to father their first child while in cohabiting unions or while unpartnered? Cherlin will use data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) to track the transitions into fatherhood (first-births) of young adult males who entered the U.S. labor market at a time when moderately-educated workers were facing decreasing prospects of finding and keeping a middle-skill job that would eventually lead to stable and reasonably well-paid employment.

Cherlin hypothesizes that, at the individual level, the lower a young man’s wage and the more volatile his employment history and, at the county level, the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the wages in the retail sector, and the smaller the size of the typical firm, the higher the relative risk of having a first birth in a cohabiting union rather than in marriage, and the higher the relative risk of having a first birth while un-partnered. He also expects the association to be stronger for non-college educated men than for college-educated young men because the former have been more adversely affected by changes in the labor market.


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