The picture of the twentysomething years painted by the pop culture—think Girls or The Mindy Project—suggests that young adults use their 20s as a kind of “odyssey years” to bridge adolescence and adulthood. Judging by Hannah, Adam, and Mindy, the 20s are about getting educated and established at work, enjoying drinks and coffee with friends, trying your hand at relationships, all before the press of adult responsibilities sets in.
This picture is largely accurate for college-educated young adults as we show in our new report, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” and it’s a picture that ends up relatively rosy, even if the 20s have difficult moments. These highly educated adults have embraced a “capstone” model of marriage that typically leads them to put off marriage until they have had a chance to establish themselves professionally, personally, and relationship-wise. This capstone model is paying big dividends to the college-educated: Their divorce rate is low, and their income is high. We find, for instance, that college-educated women who postpone marriage to their 30s earn about $10,000 more than their college-educated sisters who marry in their mid-20s.
But one major and more dystopian feature of actual contemporary twentysomething life is conspicuously absent from small-screen depictions: parenthood. Hard as it might be for Hannah and Mindy—and their viewers—to imagine, most American women without college degrees have their first child in their 20s. These young women and their partners—who make up about two-thirds of twentysomething adults in the United States—are logging more time at the diaper aisle of the local supermarket than at the local bar.