Most Americans don’t place a high priority on marriage and children compared with their careers and friends, a new Pew Research Center survey says, and a large minority of Americans are pessimistic about the future of marriage and family.
Patrick T. Brown, a family policy expert and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA that the increasing number of people uninterested in having children or getting married “should help us recognize that we are entering a new era.”
“The Pew survey shows what I think a lot of [people] already feel: that the family, as an institution, is under threat, not least from a shifting cultural attitude that treats family and marriage as incidental to long-term well-being,” Brown said.
“The family used to be the core unit of society. Increasingly, it’s now a lifestyle choice. And troublingly, the Americans who could benefit most from the stability of marriage and family life — working-class individuals and those without a college degree — are the least likely to participate in its benefits,” he said.
The Pew Research Center survey of 5,073 U.S. adults took place from April 10–16. Respondents were part of the Pew Center’s American Trends Panel.
“There’s baseline support for a variety of family arrangements, but the public still favors some types of families over others,” the Pew Research Center said Sept. 14. “Families that include a married husband and wife raising children are seen as the most acceptable. At the same time, relatively few Americans say marriage and parenthood are central to living a fulfilling life.”
The Pew survey showed near-unanimous consensus on one point, with 90% saying that a husband and wife raising children together is “completely acceptable.” At the same time, 40% of Americans are pessimistic about the future of the institution of marriage and the family, compared with 26% who say they are optimistic and 29% who say they are neither.
White adults, older adults, and Republicans tend to be more pessimistic.
Only 26% of respondents said that having children is extremely or very important to “living a fulfilling life,” and only 23% said the same about being married. By comparison, 24% said having money was extremely or very important for fulfillment, 61% said this of having close friends, and 71% said this of having a job or career they enjoy.
Men were somewhat more likely than women to prioritize marriage and children, as were married people and parents.
Brown told CNA the survey responses show “the influence of a creeping materialism” and “the tendency to find meaning in career rather than family, community, or faith.”
“Obviously we should all be making the most of our talents, but any trend towards placing career over family life should be something that concerns people of faith,” Brown said.
Pew asked whether various family trends would have a positive or negative impact on the country’s future. Respondents generally preferred to say a trend would have neither a positive nor a negative impact.
About 49% of respondents said it is a negative trend to have fewer children raised by two married parents, while only 11% found this a positive trend. Another 36% said it’s a negative trend that fewer people are getting married, while 9% said this is positive. About 29% said it is a negative trend that more couples are living together without marrying, while 15% said this is positive.
As for the trend that people are having fewer children, 27% of Pew respondents thought this to be negative while 25% thought this to be positive. Respondents said this trend would have a good effect on the environment as well as women’s careers and job opportunities, but a negative effect on social security and the overall economy.
“Overall, there’s a lot here that should worry anyone who believes in the necessity and the vitality of the family,” Brown commented. The survey shows there is limited appeal to proposals to make it easier to have kids or to get married. For Brown, this “should underscore why the world needs the Church to spell out an attractive vision of family life, one that doesn’t rest on tired cliches from the 1950s or gets lost in the morass of today’s individualism.”
Respondents to the Pew Survey said their experience growing up with their own family was most formative for their views about what makes a good family arrangement: 69% said their experience had a fair amount or a great deal of influence over their views.
Only about 44% of respondents said their religious views had a fair amount or a great deal of influence over their family ideals. About 47% of Catholics said their religion has at least a fair amount of influence on their views, compared with 83% of white evangelicals, 62% of Black Protestants, and 48% of non-evangelical White Protestants.
“As Catholics, we will need to continue to explain the fundamental logic of the family as the key social institution geared towards the creation and formation of new human life,” Brown said. “That’s not a message many in our culture want to hear right now. But there’s also widespread discontent with what the sexual revolution has done to family life. You see it in discussions about online dating, porn, even things like commercial surrogacy.”
Regarding acceptable family types, the survey reported the greatest acceptance for a husband and wife raising kids together. Another 81% found it acceptable or completely acceptable for a husband and wife to choose not to have kids, and this situation was somewhat more acceptable than a single parent raising a child alone. A married same-sex couple not having children was accepted by 73% of Americans, about the same response to a cohabiting couple raising their children together, who in turn were more acceptable than a same-sex couple raising kids.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say many family types are acceptable, and women are more likely than men.
Brown said the survey responses suggest a desire to “live and let live,” and many may see the questions as judgmental. He countered: “It’s not being judgmental to say kids have better outcomes when they are raised by two parents.”
Pew’s survey indicated a small majority of Americans think unhappy couples stay married for too long, while under half say such couples get divorced too quickly. Though a majority of Pew respondents rejected open marriages, there was significant support for open marriages among those who self-identify as LGBT, cohabiting, and people under age 30.
“It’s always hard to tell how honest people are in these kind of emotionally-charged surveys,” Brown said. “But if it’s true that one-third of Americans find the idea of an open marriage morally acceptable, it just underscores how thin our understanding of marriage is in contemporary society.”
He suggested the subgroups most likely to view open marriages favorably may be the ones “least likely to have that traditional view of marriage in the first place.”