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book cover

Summary of Marriage and Cohabitation

by Arland Thornton, William Axinn, and Yu Xie

Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research,
The University of Michigan

Published by University of Chicago Press, 2007

Marriage and Cohabitation, published in 2007, by the University of Chicago Press provides a comprehensive examination of marriage and cohabitation in the United States. Cohabitation and Marriage today are studied in a historical perspective–placing union formation in the context of the culture and traditions of the Western world over the last half millennium. By placing marriage and cohabitation in this historical context the book explicates in new ways the meaning of marriage, cohabitation, and being single. The book also demonstrates the variety of circumstances and reasons that young people enter cohabiting unions.

The book documents the numerous and profound ways in which the union formation experiences of young people are influenced by the experiences, characteristics, attitudes, and values of both young people and their parents. The roots of the children's union formation experiences in the parental generation are traced to the early lives of the parents themselves. In addition, the book shows how circumstances in the parental family from the births of the children through early adulthood influence children's entrance into marital and cohabiting unions. The parental factors related to children's union formation include such social and economic circumstances as farm background, education, and income. Parental marital, divorce, and childbearing experiences also affect children's cohabitation and marriage experiences. So do parental religiosity, family organization, and gregariousness. The book also documents the substantial influence of parental values, attitudes, and aspirations on the children's union formation experiences.

As one would expect, the aspirations, attitudes, and experiences of young adults are even more important than the attributes of the parents in affecting entrance into marriage and cohabitation. Adolescent experiences with dating, going steady, and the initiation of sexual relationships are strongly correlated with subsequent entry into cohabitation and marriage. The religiosity of young people, including attendance at services, the importance of religion to them, and religious beliefs all have important effects on union formation experience. So do the attitudes, values, and aspirations of young people concerning marriage, childbearing, school, and work. We also show how school attendance and achievement influence union formation, as do employment and earning capacity.

An important feature of the book is its documentation of many of the causal mechanisms transmitting the influence of first and second generation factors to the union formation experiences of young adults. The book documents the overall effects of the various parent and child factors on marital and cohabiting experiences. In addition, it describes the direct and indirect causal pathways through which these first and second generation factors influence union formation.

This detailed and comprehensive examination of the influence of first and second generation factors on children's union formation experiences is made possible by the existence of data from the Intergenerational Panel Study of Parents and Children (IPS). The IPS is a long-term panel study of families that were studied in eight waves of interviews from 1962 through 1993. The study includes multiple interviews with both the mothers in the families and a child born in 1961, just before the study began. The last three waves of interviews conducted between 1980 and 1993 were designed explicitly for the purpose of examining intergenerational influences on family formation experiences of young people. As a result, the data from this study provide the empirical resources for a comprehensive study of union formation.

This research is very relevant for understanding the historical changes in marriage and cohabitation in the last third of the twentieth century. Although the IPS provides information only on a single cohort, it provides information on families–both parents and children–who lived through the dramatic family changes of the past several decades. These data about the marriage and cohabitation experiences of the children in these families provide insights about the kinds of young people involved in the decrease in marriage and the upward trajectory of cohabitation. This study also provides insights into the types of parental families that reared children who would later cohabit and/or postpone marriage. It also shows the experiences, values, and aspirations of the children who would subsequently postpone marriage and/or decide to cohabit.