The path to adulthood used to be clear -- love, marriage, baby carriage -- and no one embodied that more than America's working class. But today, for those with only a high school education, that order no longer holds; in fact, a new study suggests that marriage is foundering in Middle America.
Andrew Felices, 26, and Mellissa Giles, 27, are this new face of the American family. They've been living together since before their son, A.J., was born. He's 2 1/2 now, and he shrieks gleefully as he sprawls on the basement floor with dad, building a train track. The couple bought a cozy condo in Frederick, Md., last summer. A home, a child -- but neither is in any rush to tie the knot.
"We're still young," Mellissa says. We're enjoying the time as it is."
What's important, says Andrew, is "having your life the way you want it, your lifestyle in place. Getting married is really the cherry on top."
Andrew and Mellissa are part of a huge shift. A new study by the National Marriage Project finds 44 percent of those with high school diplomas but no college degrees now have children without being married. That's more than triple what it was in the 1970s. And we're not talking teen mothers; half of those nonmarital births were to couples living together.
Many are in their 20s or 30s and, like Mellissa and Andrew, welcome a child. But marriage?
"A lot of people, I think, see marriage as a piece of paper," says Mellissa. "A piece of paper that costs a lot of money to change." She laughs and explains that she means divorce.
Like many children of the 1980s, Mellissa's parents split when she was young. She's wary, and she knows that a big factor in divorce can be money problems. She and Andrew have decent, full-time jobs. She manages a big-box store, and he processes auto insurance claims. But financially speaking, there's not much wiggle room.
"For me," says Andrew, "it feels unsafe heading into a marriage, where two people rely on each other, to go into it unprepared. In my family, my mother never worked, and my dad's income was always very sufficient to support our family. I'd like to model that in my life."
The trouble is, that's become a lot harder to do without a college degree. Time was, a man could go from high school to a well-paying, secure factory job. No more.
And Brad Wilcox, who heads the National Marriage Project, says that for three decades, men especially have seen their wages stagnate.
"And that makes them less attractive both in their eyes and in the eyes of their partners, as husbands," says Wilcox. "Both in terms of thinking about getting married, but also in terms of staying married."
Wilcox's study finds divorce up among the working class, even as it's fallen for the college educated. The recession, he says, has only exacerbated the problem, hitting lower-wage jobs hardest.
Culturally, it's certainly much more acceptable to have children without being wed. But there's still an argument for marriage: Wilcox says unmarried parents are more than twice as likely to break up by the time their child is 5.
Since the 1960s, Wilcox notes, there's been concern about the breakdown of family among the poor and African-Americans. "What's happened now," he says, "is that retreat from marriage has moved up the social ladder into the heart of American life, into Middle America."
Wilcox worries: Could marriage become a privilege only for the educated elite?
But wait a minute. If financial concerns are keeping people from getting married, the logic doesn't hold. Isn't a child more expensive than a spouse?
"A child is more expensive," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and author of The Marriage Go-Round. "What I think is happening is that a lot of young adults these days think that having a kid is absolutely necessary and something you don't put off until someday in the future when you might be able to marry."
But, Cherlin says -- and polls confirm -- young adults do want to marry.
"I want to have that beautiful gown, and all the family, and toasts with champagne," says Melissa Ethridge of Austin, Texas.
She was engaged when she became pregnant. But a wedding fell by the wayside as she and her boyfriend dropped out of college, moved closer to family and were overwhelmed with the costs of raising a child. Their son is now 4, and they're separating. Ethridge says people would ask why they didn't just get a marriage license at the courthouse.
"It may have made a difference as far as us staying together," she muses. "Maybe we would have tried harder, I'm not sure."
As for the couple in Maryland, Andrew and Mellissa, they've decided a college degree is a must to have the family life they desire. They'll have to squeeze in classes around work. Andrew hopes to get a promotion with tuition reimbursement. Perhaps then, they say, with degrees in hand, it will be the right time to marry.