Marriage or children: Which is more important? Which should be?

As a recently minted husband and a new father, I’m interested in trends around marriage and childbearing.  The 2010 Census has yielded a host of interesting patterns (detailed Census report here) in this regard: marriage rates are down for people of all demographics; marriage rates are down most dramatically among Americans with the lowest educational attainment (46% of Americans with a high school diploma or less are married, compared to 64% of college graduates who are married);  Americans of all stripes are getting married later in life (the average age of marriage for men is 28, for women 26); successful marriages are increasingly concentrated among Americans with the most education (a college degree or more).

One of the most interesting pieces of analysis around marriage and childbearing trends comes from a survey by the Pew Research Center that found that members of the Millenial Generation (roughly speaking anyone born between 1980 and 2000) believe that being a good parent is more important in life than having a successful marriage: 52% of Millenials said being a good parent was one of the most important things in life while only 30% said the same thing about marriage.  This roughly tracks with Census trends which show that Americans are getting married later in life and less often overall and also increasingly having children outside of marriage.

This result really struck me, first because in my own life I never considered having children before I’d gotten married, and second, because it’s unclear whether marriage or children is more important for happiness.  My sense is that the available evidence suggests a successful marriage contributes more to happiness than children do.  There’s the fact that married couples are better off financially than single people, and that marriage correlates with better physical health and longer life expectancy.  At the same time there have been a slew of articles and studies in recent years questioning whether having children actually makes people happier, including this piece from New York magazine subtitled “Why parents hate parenting.”  [N.b. It will come as no surprise that I disagree with the argument that children are detrimental to happiness; I’m just noting that it’s out there.]

It’s possible, then, that there’s a tension between what Millenials prioritize (children over marriage) and what will make them happy.  At the same time, it’s also possible that Millenials have soberly concluded that while a happy marriage might not be possible for them, they don’t want that to mean they have to miss out on having children too.