For countless generations, entry into adulthood was typically and quickly followed by marriage and parenthood. Over the last few decades, however, we have seen a precipitous decline in both marriage and fertility rates. The question is, why? And what can be done about it?
The societal decision to delay or abandon marriage and parenthood is, in essence, a decision to extend adolescence, sometimes indefinitely. Understanding how and why adolescence has been extended will help explain why marriage and fertility rates have fallen—and how those trends might be reversed.
A little more than a century ago, there was no such thing as adolescence; there was only childhood and adulthood. Most societies held a ceremony by the age of 16 to mark a child’s transition into adulthood. The newly initiated adults were expected to begin work, and not long after, to get married and have children.
The modern concept of adolescence was an invention of the industrial age. As parents shifted their workplace from the farm or trade shops to the factory, they could no longer have children accompanying them. Schooling had already been widespread in the United States to ensure basic literacy, but it was extended to higher grades to provide custodial care while parents went to work, as well as to cultivate the skills required for an industrial economy.
The extension of schooling occurred gradually, with most Americans at the beginning of the 20th century finishing after the 8th grade. As late as 1940, fewer than a quarter of people over the age of 25 had a high school diploma, and only 38% of those between the ages of 25 and 29 did so. Finishing school at a younger age meant that people started working younger, got married younger, and started having children younger.
By 2021, schooling had been dramatically extended. Now more than 90% of people over the age of 25 have a high-school diploma, and more than two-thirds of those between the ages of 25 and 34 have received at least some post-secondary education.
Increasing educational attainment certainly contributed to increased skill levels and higher societal wealth, but it also extended adolescence, a period of limbo during which people who historically would have taken on adult roles of work and family largely defer assuming those responsibilities.
If we want to enjoy the benefits of higher economic production without unnecessarily extending adolescence, we need to recognize that not all increases in educational attainment have been necessary to obtain economically useful skills. More and more jobs that people used to perform with a high school education or less now require at least a BA.
For example, as higher education scholar Preston Cooper points out, 33% of secretaries hold a bachelor’s degree today, compared to just 9% in 1990. More occupations require licensure post-high school or even post-baccalaureate, which lengthens the time people need to be in school before they can work, even when the requirements of the positions are no more technical and the outcomes no higher quality than they were decades ago.
This excessive credentialing is not economically productive and significantly delays the age when people feel ready to enter full adulthood with work, marriage, and parenthood. The value proposition of universities has also plummeted as families are increasingly concerned these institutions are failing to develop the mind or character of students.
Some people have wrongly blamed the decline in marriage and fertility on the rising costs of college, housing, and childcare. We should, of course, strive to eliminate the inefficient subsidies and barriers to competition that have driven those costs higher. But the problem of low marriage and birth rates is largely a function of how rich our society is, not a lack of funds.
We are collectively rich enough to impose excessive credentialing requirements that keep people out of the labor market and drive the costs of goods and services higher. We are collectively rich enough to indulge young people in overly long journeys of self-discovery as they slow-walk the completion of their education. Increasing subsidies for education, forgiving student loans, and increasing childcare subsidies laden with burdensome regulations will only compound the problem.
It is generally unhealthy for a society to extend adolescence. If people do not assume adult responsibilities at a reasonable age, they may never assume those responsibilities, abandon the self-absorption of youth, and develop mature connections to others and their communities. Biological constraints on fertility for people who delay consideration of marriage and parenthood until older ages are also depressing birth rates.
Some states have smartly decided to eliminate degree requirements for government jobs. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) did so recently in Virginia, removing the credential barrier for an estimated 90% of state jobs. Congress should follow suit for appropriate federal jobs. Lawmakers should also end the inefficient subsidies that indulge this extended adolescence, reining in open-ended federal student loans (and attendant cancellation) that enable a leisurely stroll through six years of college (for a four-year degree).
As birth rates plummet, labor shortages may become severe, and it will get harder for us to indulge this arrested development. We need to act now to eliminate excessive credentialing and licensure requirements for employment so that people can get to work sooner and begin enjoying the love, benefits, and security of family formation.
This piece originally appeared in Restoring America by the Washington Examiner