07/25/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

A Warning for Parents of Millennials

Decades of research show that when children grow up with their married parents, they have a much greater chance of good outcomes across every imaginable physical, mental, social and economic outcome compared to children who grow up with single parents.

That's why all of us should be very concerned about the picture that's emerging around two of the most profound choices today's young adults will face, marriage and parenthood, because they are bearing the next generation of children.

The Millennial generation (born roughly from 1980-2000) looks very different from previous generations when it comes to marriage and parenthood. The birth rate in 2012 among women age 18-24 (a group right in the middle of this generation) was at a historic low. This drop in birth rate is good news because it has occurred for unmarried and married women. According to a recent report released by the federal government:

  • The birth rate for women ages 18-19 was 51.4 per 1,000 in 2012, down from 94.0 per 1,000 in 1991. The rate for women ages 20-24 fell from 116.5 per 1,000 in 1990 to 83.1 per 1,000 in 2012.
  • The birth rate for unmarried women ages 18-19 increased from 1980 to 1994, from 39.0 births per 1,000 to a high of 69.1 per 1,000. By 2012, the birth rate had dropped to 45.8 per 1,000 women ages 18-19.
  • The birth rate for unmarried women ages 20-24 increased between 1980 and 2007 to 79.8 per 1,000 in 2007. The rate has since declined through 2012, when it was 64.7 per 1,000. Birth rates for married women ages 18-19 and 20-24 have declined over the past two decades. The rate for married women ages 18-19 declined from a high of 385.1 per 1,000 in 1990 to 200.6 per 1,000 in 2012.
  • For married women ages 20-24, the birth rate decreased from 216.7 per 1,000 in 1990 to 170.4 per 1,000 in 2011, but rose to 174.3 per 1,000 in 2012.

Based on what we know about the increased risk children face when they grow up in single-parent homes, the fact that fewer children are being born to unmarried young adults is encouraging.

Unfortunately, of children born to young adults, the proportion of them born out-of-wedlock is staggering -- 86 percent of births to women ages 18-19 and 65 percent of births to women ages 20-24. That's the bad news for the children of Millennials, because a greater proportion of them will face challenges that, unfortunately, are not of their own choosing.

By now you might be asking yourself what's caused these trends. Certainly the recent confluence of two other trends has a lot to do with it--the average age of first marriage for women (26.5) has surpassed their average age of first birth (25.7). That scary confluence of trends has increased the risk that Millennials will have children out of wedlock and that their children will be at increased risk for a host of poor outcomes because they'll be less likely to have involved, responsible, committed fathers in their lives.

Another factor causing these trends is changing attitudes that have led to the decoupling of marriage and childbearing. Most Americans have come to view marriage as a means to satisfy their desire for meaningful, life-long connection instead of as an institution for raising children and what children need to thrive. Focusing on that aspect of marriage to the detriment of marriage's primary function of raising healthy children is a recipe for disaster where children and our society are concerned.

A related change in attitudes is that being a good parent far surpasses the importance of a successful marriage. A 2010 Pew Research survey found that 52 percent of Millennials said being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life. Just 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. That's compared to the 42 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of the previous generation (Gen X) who said in 1997 -- when they were the same age as Millennials in 2010 -- being a good parent and having a successful marriage was one of the most important things in life.

Interestingly, most Millennials said in the same survey that they want to marry (70 percent) and have children (74 percent). At least that's what they said. A recent analysis by the Urban Institute casts doubt on whether that desire will come to fruition. In looking at the likelihood of marriage by age 40 across a range of scenarios (including one in which marriage rates "recover"), it's likely that a smaller percentage of Millennials will marry than in any generation before them. Just as concerning, the pattern of the marriage gap that's emerged based on education and race will only get worse as will the related social and economic consequences for children, families, and society.

I'm a Gen X parent raising two Millennials. Given my role as president of National Fatherhood Initiative, you might assume that I've been diligent about telling my children to marry before having children and that the primary role of marriage is to create a healthy next generation. And you'd be right. Of course, most parents of my generation don't have the advantage of a profession that keeps the well-being of children front and center. Nevertheless, every parent of my generation should heed the following warning. A tidal wave of change is upon us that will irrevocably harm our children and grandchildren if we don't send a clear, consistent message to our Millennial offspring that they should value marriage for it's role in the well-being of their future children at least as much, if not more, than it's role in fulfilling their lives.