Teens' Marriage Views Reflect Changing Norms

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Thanks to late-night cable reruns, even the youngest generation can see how marriage was portrayed in the early days of television, when social parameters kept a lid on anything outside the traditional "married with children" model. But TV shows, movies, and life in general expose today's teens to far more complex marital issues than how mom should decorate the cake for dad's birthday dinner. The 1960s and '70s ushered in a period of unprecedented social norms -- divorce, premarital sex, and having babies before the wedding, if indeed there is to be a wedding at all.

Today, married couples with children make up just 24% of households, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. That number is down from 40% in 1970, and is expected to sink to 20% by 2010. The Gallup Youth Survey* asked teens (aged 13 to 17) what they think about the moral acceptability of specific issues surrounding marriage. Results show that a majority of teens see both divorce and sex outside of marriage as morally acceptable (66% and 57%, respectively), while just 4 in 10 (42%) feel the same way about having children out of wedlock. But only 5% teens said that married men and women having an affair is morally acceptable, while 94% said it is not.

Some teens are forced to confront their feelings on moral issues sooner in their young lives than others are. Alicia, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Pittsburgh -- whose parents never married -- is one of them. She feels that sex between unmarried men and women may be morally acceptable but only if they take the proper steps to prevent pregnancy. Clearly, she feels that having a baby outside of marriage is morally wrong. "For the child's sake," Alicia says, "I feel that it is crucial to their proper development that his or her parents be married -- then it is more likely that the couple will be financially and mentally prepared to bring up a child."

More Girls Than Boys See Divorce as Morally Acceptable

Boys and girls are generally similar with regard to the numbers who say that premarital sex, having a child outside of marriage, and extramarital affairs are morally acceptable. But there is one marital issue on which girls' and boys' opinions differ significantly. Almost three-fourths of girls (74%) said divorce is morally acceptable, compared to 58% of boys. While she sees divorce as undesirable, Alicia thinks it is morally acceptable. "Even though marriage is supposed to mean 'til death do you part, there are times when one person in the marriage is severely mistreated or unhappy -- then divorce is necessary."

Religion and Morality

With the exception of their opinions on extramarital affairs (which both groups rate as morally unacceptable), teens who attend church or synagogue on a weekly basis are much more inclined to view all issues less favorably than teens who do not attend regularly. According to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University (NMP), religiosity bodes well for long marriages. NMP reports that two groups have considerably higher divorce rates than others: those who marry as teenagers and non-religious people.

Bottom Line

According to the NMP, 65% of young people have sex before they finish high school, a third of all children are born out of wedlock, and the divorce rate hovers around 50%. "Marriage is a fundamental social institution," NMP asserts. "It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole."

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 517 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

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