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Debt, Cohabitation, and Marriage in Young Adulthood

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Demography

Abstract

Despite growing evidence that debt influences pivotal life events in early and young adulthood, the role of debt in the familial lives of young adults has received relatively little attention. Using data from the NLSY 1997 cohort (N = 6,749) and a discrete-time competing risks hazard model framework, I test whether the transition to first union is influenced by a young adult’s credit card and education loan debt above and beyond traditional educational and labor market characteristics. I find that credit card debt is positively associated with cohabitation for men and women, and that women with education loan debt are more likely than women without such debt to delay marriage and transition into cohabitation. Single life may be difficult to afford, but marital life is unaffordable as well. Cohabitation presents an alternative to single life, but not necessarily a marital substitute for these young adults.

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Notes

  1. Debt could directly impact union formation if credit access is constrained or if the debt amount signals their perceived readiness for cohabitation versus marriage to the debtor and to others. The latter is the mechanism tested in this study.

  2. It is not possible to determine if their debt at age 20 is independent from their previous relationship experience.

  3. The majority of the excluded women (88 %) and men (90 %) were cohabitors, increasing the average age of first cohabitation from 20.89 to 22.65 for women and from 21.93 to 23.02 for men, and increasing first marriage from 22.49 to 23.61 for women and from 23.42 to 23.96 for men.

  4. Aggregating the education loan debt to the same level as the credit card debt or filling in missing years for credit card debt measure are qualitatively similar to the yearly measures and are available from the author upon request.

  5. Additional covariate results reveal that compared with non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic black women and men are less likely to transition to either union, and Hispanic women and men have a lower probability of cohabiting. Having a child is positively associated with transitioning into cohabitation first for women, but men who report having a child are more likely to cohabit and marry than to remain single. Maternal education increases the risks of cohabitation, but paternal education decreases the risks of cohabitation only for women. Being raised in a rural area increases the likelihood of direct marriage, and currently residing in a rural area decreases the likelihood of cohabitation.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge Sharon Sassler, Daniel T. Lichter, and Francine D. Blau for their helpful comments on early versions. A preliminary version of this article was presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Population Association of America in San Francisco, CA.

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Correspondence to Fenaba R. Addo.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 4 Descriptive statistics of independent variables used in the analysis, by sex

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Addo, F.R. Debt, Cohabitation, and Marriage in Young Adulthood. Demography 51, 1677–1701 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0333-6

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