College-educated women are reaping most of the benefits of later marriage: They can enjoy the greater economic security that comes with marrying later, while still being able to have children in the relatively stable context of marriage. Women with lower education levels get a much smaller economic bump for marrying later and are less likely to to be married when they have their first child.
And couples are delaying marriage and children for fear of repeating the cycle of divorce that their parents endured, as well as because of crushing college-loan debt. The acceptance of cohabitation has led to about 70 percent of twenty-somethings choosing that lifestyle over marriage, despite the proof that children fare better with married parents.
But Last believes we have to go even further. We need to challenge other instilled beliefs that young people have concerning parenthood. For one, they think the government will take care of them in their old age, so that particular perk of parenthood means nothing to them. And the cost of housing in dense urban areas discourages them from having larger families, and so policies supporting telecommuting and other ways to encourage suburban living are needed.
And not only are young couples delaying family life because of their own college debt, they fear the cost of sending several children to college. Last believes we need to totally change the higher-education system.
If college were another industry, everyone would be campaigning for reform. Instead, politicians are trying to push every kid in America into the current exorbitantly expensive system. How could we get college costs under control? For one, we could begin to eliminate college’s role as a credentialing machine by allowing employers to give their own tests to prospective workers. Alternately, we could encourage the university system to be more responsive to market forces by creating a no-frills, federal degree-granting body that awards certificates to students who pass exams in a given subject.
Encouraging married couples to have more children is a complicated issue that has no easy answers. But we should not be apathetic about the issue of our current fertility level. Our country’s future — and the direction it will take on so many levels — is at stake.