For More Millennials, It's Kids First, Marriage Maybe Millennials, particularly those with less education, are upending the traditional order of love, marriage, baby carriage. Many say they don't feel financially secure enough to tie the knot.

For More Millennials, It's Kids First, Marriage Maybe

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For decades, first came love, then marriage, then the baby carriage. But the millennial generation is upending all of that. Fewer young adults than ever are tying the knot. Almost half of millennial women who give birth are not married. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the latest in our series on the New Boom.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It's lunchtime when I meet Michelle Sheridan and Phillip Underwood at their apartment in Frederick, Maryland.

PHILLIP UNDERWOOD: Oh, sweetheart.

LUDDEN: Two-year-old Lilliana is hungry.

MICHELLE SHERIDAN: You'd think we don't feed you.

LUDDEN: This is not Michelle's first child. Eight-year-old Logan's at school. His dad left before he was born. She got pregnant again a year after she and Phillip had moved in together. Like half of all pregnancies in the U.S., it wasn't exactly planned.

SHERIDAN: But it wasn't really like a bad time or - I don't know. It just seemed like an OK thing to do.

UNDERWOOD: I stared at the pregnancy test for 10 minutes waiting for it to change.

SHERIDAN: He did stare at the pregnancy test for 10 minutes. But then he got really happy. It was actually really cute.

LUDDEN: Decades ago, an oops would've meant a rush to the altar. But older millennials are children of the 1980s - the decade of the nation's highest divorce rate. Phillip's dad walked out when he was a baby. Michelle's parents stayed together but fought a lot.

SHERIDAN: That was hard to watch. I don't want to go through that. I don't want my kids to see it.

LUDDEN: So even though she's 28 and he's 32, they say the pregnancy never prompted thoughts of marriage. If anything, the opposite.

SHERIDAN: It changes the dynamic of the household. I had a friend who put off her marriage, got pregnant and she's like, let's just wait 'cause we don't know if we're going to be able to make it through this. We don't know if this is going to change who we are. We don't know if this is going to change the stress level and we'll be able to adjust to that.

LUDDEN: One big stressor - money. Michelle spent years as a restaurant server, then pizza delivery driver. She got pregnant just as she had managed to start college full-time with federal aid. Phillip's a car technician, but he'd been through a rough patch work wise.

UNDERWOOD: It was so sporadic, and it would go from full-time one week to 20 hours the next.

LUDDEN: Their apartment is government-subsidized. Things were so tight at one point, they shared a cell phone. But isn't that the time-honored way? Marry young and poor and work your way up?

SHERIDAN: No, that seems terrifying at this point. Like, it's hard enough to work up just on your own. Trying to work up as a couple seems, like, so...

LUDDEN: She sighs at a loss for words.

ARIELLE KUPERBERG: Fifty years ago, when people graduated high school, they could go out and get a manufacturing job and have a pretty good wage - you know, some benefits.

LUDDEN: But Arielle Kuperberg of the University of North Carolina Greensboro says those wages have been falling since the 1970s. The unemployment rate for high school grads today is double that for those with a college degree. It's not that lesser educated couples don't want to wed, she says. Kuperberg studied the labor market in 20 cities.

KUPERBERG: In cities that had better labor markets for people with less education, there was actually a smaller gap in marriage rates.

LUDDEN: Kuperberg worries this changing economy is making marriage almost a luxury - something for only the better off.

DIANA BLACK: And so here's a picture of our groomsmen and Dave.

LUDDEN: In Harrisonburg, Virginia, Diana Black shows me her wedding album from last year.

DIANA BLACK: Getting ready. Here's my mom.

LUDDEN: She and her husband, Dave, started dating in college. They now have graduate degrees and budding careers. Dave waited to propose until he got a handle on his student loans.

DAVE BLACK: I had the bulk of them paid off at that point. And I felt like I was in a decent place to shell out the additional money for the ring.

LUDDEN: They were the first in their circle to get engaged. But at 27, neither feels ready for children just yet.

DIANA BLACK: For me, parenthood is such an enormous responsibility. And the longer I give myself, I feel like the better prepared I'll be.

LUDDEN: That doesn't mean they're not planning. Dave and Diana take me to see the four-bedroom house they recently bought - big yard out back, good schools nearby and upstairs, a perfect child's room complete with secret passage.

DIANA BLACK: This door here goes to the attic. So for a kid, that would feel very Harry Potter-tastic, I think.

LUDDEN: Two different stories, two couples who each say they're acting in the best interests of their children. But researcher Arielle Kuperberg says this marriage divide could mean more inequality in the next generation. The problem, she says, is not that people are having kids without being married - it's that, on average, unwed couples are far more likely to split up by the time their child is 5.

KUPERBERG: And we know that that leads to other problems, at least to some behavioral problems. It could lead to academic problems. It just leads to kind of less of a sense of stability, which hurts their chances later on.

LUDDEN: Of course, it doesn't always happen that way, and not it seems for the first family we met.

SHERIDAN: Come here, sweetie pie.

UNDERWOOD: Come here, sweetie pie.

LUDDEN: Earlier this year, Phillip landed a steady job as a car technician at Wal-Mart. He says that made him think differently about proposing to Michelle.

UNDERWOOD: I know every week I will be working 40 hours. I'm not making the most money in the world, but we're not financially tight.

SHERIDAN: We have diapers, and everybody eats.


DIANA BLACK: (Laughter) And we can drive when we need to drive somewhere.

UNDERWOOD: And there's a roof.

LUDDEN: By the end of his first month on the new job, he'd bought a ring. She said yes. Since we spoke, Phillip's moved to an even better job, and they've set a date, next June. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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