Trends of the Past Four Decades

Teen Attitudes about Marriage & Family

Figure 14. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said Having a Good Marriage and Family Life is “Extremely Important,” by Time Period, United States[A]

Figure 14. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said Having a Good Marriage and Family Life is 'Extremely Important,' by Time Period, United States
  1. Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Figure 15. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said it is Very Likely They Will Stay Married to the Same Person for Life, by Time Period, United States[A]

Figure 15. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said it is Very Likely They Will Stay Married to the Same Person for Life, by Time Period, United States
  1. Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000. From 1976–1980 to 1986–1990, the trend is significantly downward for both girls and boys (p < .01 on a two-tailed test), but after 1986–1990, the trend is significantly upward for boys (p < .01 on a two-tailed test).

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Figure 16. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said They Agreed or Mostly Agreed That Most People Will Have Fuller and Happier Lives if They Choose Legal Marriage Rather Than Staying Single or Just Living With Someone, by Time Period, United States[A]

Figure 16. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said They Agreed or Mostly Agreed That Most People Will Have Fuller and Happier Lives if They Choose Legal Marriage Rather Than Staying Single or Just Living With Someone, by Time Period, United States
  1. Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Figure 17. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said Having a Child Without Being Married is Experimenting with a Worthwhile Lifestyle or Not Affecting Anyone Else, by Time Period, United States[A]

Figure 17. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Said Having a Child Without Being Married is Experimenting with a Worthwhile Lifestyle or Not Affecting Anyone Else, by Time Period, United States
  1. Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000, except for 2001–2004, for which it is about 4,500. The question was not offered between 2007 and 2009.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Figure 18. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Agreed or Mostly Agreed with this Statement: “It is Usually a Good Idea for a Couple to Live Together Before Getting Married in Order to Find Out Whether They Really Get Along,” by Time Period, United States[A]

Figure 18. Percentage of High School Seniors Who Agreed or Mostly Agreed with this Statement: 'It is Usually a Good Idea for a Couple to Live Together Before Getting Married in Order to Find Out Whether They Really Get Along,' by Time Period, United States
  1. Number of respondents for each sex for each period is about 6,000.

Source: “Monitoring the Future” surveys conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

Key Finding: The desire of teenagers of both sexes for “a good marriage and family life” has remained high over the past few decades. Boys are almost 10 percentage points less desirous of this than girls, however, and they are also a little more pessimistic about the possibility of a long-term marriage. Both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation.

To find out what the future may hold for marriage and family life, we must determine what our nation’s youth are saying and thinking, and how their views have changed over time. Are these living products of the divorce revolution going to continue the family ways of their parents? Or might there be a cultural counterrevolution among the young that could lead to a reversal of current family trends?

Since 1976, a nationally representative survey of high-school seniors aptly titled Monitoring the Future has been conducted annually by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.[1] It asks numerous questions about family-related topics. Based on this survey, the percentage of teenagers of both sexes who say that having a good marriage and family life is “extremely important” to them has remained high over the decades. Recently, 81 percent of girls agreed with this statement, as did 72 percent of the boys (Figure 14).

Other data from the Monitoring the Future survey show a moderate increase in the percentage of teenage respondents who say that they expect to marry (or who are already married)—recently 84.5 percent for girls and 77 percent for boys.[2] Among teenagers, boys are a little more pessimistic than girls in the belief that their marriage will last a lifetime. But this difference has recently diminished and since 1986–90 the trend has been toward slightly greater optimism overall (Figure 15).

At the same time, many teenagers accept nonmarital lifestyles. Take, for example, agreement with the proposition that “most people will have fuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone” (Figure 16). Less than a third of the girls and slightly more than a third of the boys seem to believe, based on their answer to this question, that marriage is more beneficial to individuals than the alternatives. Note also that young women have seen their faith in marriage’s capacity to deliver happiness fall markedly over the last 30 years. Yet this belief is contrary to the available empirical evidence, which consistently indicates the substantial personal and social benefits of being married compared to singleness or unmarried cohabitation.[3]

Witness the remarkable increase in recent decades in the acceptance of nonmarital childbearing among teens (Figure 17). And note that whereas in the 1970s, girls tended to be more traditional than boys on this issue, then about the same in 1981 with boys slightly more traditional, and now they are about the same. With more than 50 percent of teenagers now accepting nonmarital childbearing as a “worthwhile lifestyle,” at least for others, they do not yet seem to grasp its enormous economic, social, and personal costs.

Another remarkable increase is in the acceptance of living together before marriage, now considered “usually a good idea” by well over half of all teenagers (Figure 18). In this case, girls remain slightly more traditional than boys. The growing cultural acceptance of cohabitation among high-school seniors is congruent with the increase in cohabitation demonstrated earlier in this report.

In summary, marriage and family life remain very important goals for today’s teenagers. Nevertheless, teens demonstrate increasing approval of a range of nonmarital lifestyles that stand in tension with these goals. Thus, given the ambiguous character of teenage attitudes regarding marriage, no strong signs yet exist of a generational cultural shift that could lead to a reversal of the nation’s recent retreat from marriage.


  1. The first survey was conducted in 1975, but because of changes in the ordering of the questions, the data from it are not comparable with the data from later surveys.
  2. In the 1976–1980 period, 73 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls said they expected to marry (or were already married); by 2001–2004, the boys’ percentage jumped to 77 and the girls’ to 84.5. A 1992 Gallup poll of youth age 13–17 found an even larger percentage who thought they would marry someday—88 percent compared to 9 percent who expected to stay single. Gallup has undertaken a youth poll several times since 1977, and the proportion of youth expecting to marry someday has not varied much through the years. See Robert Bezilla (ed.), America’s Youth in the 1990s (Princeton, NJ: The George H. Gallup International Institute, 1993).
  3. See Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage (New York: Doubleday, 2000); David G. Myers, The American Paradox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (1998): 527–36; David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002).