This is the conclusion of the 2006 edition of "The State of Our Unions" report on marriage, released last week by the National Marriage Project. The project is based at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
Up until recently, for most people, the greater part of adult life was spent with young children forming part of the household. A combination of marrying later, less children and longer life expectancy means, however, that a significantly greater part of adult life is spent without kids being in the house.
The report, titled "Life Without Children," was authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe. They start by noting how many recent publications complain of the difficulties in raising children. Many surveys also show that parents report lower levels of happiness compared to non-parents. In fact, an increasing number of married couples now see children as an obstacle to their marital happiness.
This isn't to say that children are rejected by the majority of couples. Nevertheless, there is a growing feeling of trepidation about taking on the responsibilities of parenthood. Of course, bringing up kids has never been easy, but there are good reasons why a growing number of parents are feeling increased pressures, the report explains.
A weakening of marriage bonds contributes to the difficulties of having children. Cohabiting women, the report explains, may postpone childbearing until they have a better sense of the long-term future of the relationship. If they wait too long, however, this places them at risk for never having children. Being in an unhappy marriage is another source of uncertainty. Couples who are worried about getting divorced are the most likely to remain childless.
Citing Census Bureau reports, Whitehead and Popenoe lay out just how much family structures have changed.
-- In 1970 the median age of first marriage for women was just under 21years-old. The age of first marriage has now risen to just short of 26. Women who have a four-year college degree marry at an even later age.
-- In 1970, 73.6% of women, ages 25-29, had already entered their child-rearing years and were living with at least one minor child of their own. By 2000, this share dropped to 48.7%. For men in the same age bracket in 1970, 57.3% lived with their own children in the household. In 2000 this had plummeted to 28.8%.
-- In 1960, 71% of married women had their first child within the first 3 years of marriage. By 1990, this almost halved, to 37%. So after getting married, couples now experience a greater number of child-free years.
-- In 1970, 27.4% of women and 39.5% of men, ages 50-54, had at least one minor child of their own in the household. By 2000, the shares had fallen to 15.4% and 24.7%, respectively.
-- In addition, a growing number of women are not having any children. In 2004, almost one out of five women in their early forties was childless. In 1976, it was only one out of ten.
-- The proportion of households with children has declined from half of all households in 1960 to less than one-third today -- the lowest in America's history.
In general, then, a few decades ago life before children was brief, with little time between the end of schooling and the beginning of marriage and family life. Life after children was also reduced, with few years left before the end of work and the beginning of old age.
Contemporary culture has quickly reflected the changes in family life, the report observes. It is increasingly common to find the years spent raising children portrayed as being less satisfying compared to the years before and after.
Adult life without children is depicted as having positive meaning and purpose, and as being full of fun and freedom. Life with children, by contrast, is seen as full of pressures and responsibilities.
In general, life without children is characterized by a focus on the self. "Indeed, the cultural injunction for the childless young and the child-free old is to 'take care of yourself,'" the report comments.
The years spent bringing up children is just the opposite. Being a parent means focusing on those who are dependent and subordinating adult needs to the requirements of the children.
By way of compensation traditional culture normally celebrated the work and sacrifice of parents, but this has now changed. Increasingly, the popular image of parents is a negative one. The new stereotypes range from the hyper-competitive sports parents who scream at their own kids, to those who ignore the problems their undisciplined children cause for others in public places.
The latest variant are the so-called "helicopter parents," who get their name from the way they supposedly hover over their children and swoop down to rescue them from any negative consequences of their behavior.
Television programs have long made fun of fathers, notes the report. More recently mothers are also being shown as unfit, unable to carry out their responsibilities without the help of a nanny, or as being over-indulgent and negligent.
By contrast a number of the most popular television shows in America in recent years, such as "Friends" and "Sex and the City," celebrated the glamorous life of young urban singles.
Bias against children
What does this portend for the future, the report asks. For a start, less political support for families. In the last presidential election, parents made up slightly less than 40% of the electorate. Less votes translates into less support for funding of schools and youth activities. Already a number of communities across the nation are trying to hold down property taxes by restricting the construction of affordable single family housing.
In cultural terms the bias against children is likely to grow. Entertainment and pastimes for adults -- gambling, pornography and sex -- is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative, and exciting, sectors of the economy.
By contrast, being a devoted parent is increasingly subject to a ruthless debunking, the report notes. In fact, the task of being a mother is now seen by a growing number as being unworthy of an educated women's time and talents. So the more staid values supportive of raising children -- sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity -- will receive less attention.
"It is hard enough to rear children in a society that is organized to support that essential social task," the report observes. "Consider how much more difficult it becomes when a society is indifferent at best, and hostile, at worst, to those who are caring for the next generation," it concludes.
The family, "founded on indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman," is where men and women "are enabled to be born with dignity, and to grow and develop in an integral manner," explained the Pope in his homily concluding the World Meeting of Families in Valencia, Spain, on July 9.
"The joyful love with which our parents welcomed us and accompanied our first steps in this world is like a sacramental sign and prolongation of the benevolent love of God from which we have come," he noted.
This experience of being welcomed and loved by God and by our parents, explained Benedict XVI, "is always the firm foundation for authentic human growth and authentic development, helping us to mature on the way towards truth and love, and to move beyond ourselves in order to enter into communion with others and with God." A foundation that is increasingly being undermined in today's society.