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Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage Paperback – September 25, 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Forty years ago, Isabel Sawhill inspired a generation of scholars, including myself, with her landmark research on divorce. Now, she does it again, turning her sharp eye on non-marital childbearing with equal success. Free of ideology and comprehensive in scope, her story highlights how the decline in marriage is affecting children's life chances and what might be done to reverse the trend."―Sara McLanahan, William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University

"Dr. Sawhill makes a thoughtful, fresh, rigorously documented case for reducing unplanned pregnancies. She pushes against a strong headwind to argue for two parent families as often as possible. If she is right about the economc and cultural implications about pur changing procreation behavior, we have a lot of work to do."―Donna Shalala, Former Secretary of Health and Human Services

"No one is better qualified than Belle Sawhill to tackle two of the most important questions facing America today. At a time of rapidly changing family structure, who is best able to raise children? And how can we do a better job of making sure the children who are born are welcomed by parents who are prepared to give them the love and sustained attention they deserve? Full of new research and analysis, this book will make you re-think what you know about both."―Judy Woodruff, PBS Newshour

"Belle Sawhill has written an extraordinary book that surfaces and analyzes the most important demographic shift over the last 50 years: the trend of young adults drifting into parenthood, rather than planning for it. The negative implications for the ability of young adults and their children to achieve the American Dream are profound and deeply troubling, but this superbly written book, drawing on insights from behavioral economics, provides clearheaded, actionable recommendations of how we can change course and ensure that every young person can achieve their full potential. Generation Unbound is a must read for policy makers, change agents, parents, anyone working to ensure that America continues to be the land of opportunity."―Mark Edwards, Executive Director, Opportunity Nation

Isabel Sawhill takes a more serious view. A former budget aide for Bill Clinton who now works at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, she has been pondering the state of the family for decades. Generation Unbound is clear, concise and admirably fair-minded.The Economist

An important new book.Nicholas Kristoff, The New York Times

You won't find a clearer-eyed analyst of family and poverty than Sawhill to serve as guides in charting a new way forward…Conservatives will have to do better in order to compete with the vision promoted in these books, which speaks forthrightly to the left, right, and middle.Emily Bazelon, The Atlantic

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution makes a compelling case that the humble IUD could help halt the ongoing rise of single mothers, who are disproportionately impoverished.Jordan Weissman, Slate

Thoughtful…I highly recommend.Catherine Rampell, The Washington Post

About the Author

Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings, where she holds the Cabot Family Chair. She also serves as codirector of the Center on Children and Families. She is the coauthor (with Ron Haskins) of Creating an Opportunity Society (Brookings, 2009) and board president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 212 pages
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (September 25, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081572635X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0815726357
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #418,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James Denny on January 20, 2015
Format: Paperback
In "Generation Unbound," author Isabel Sawhill explores the de-coupling of marriage and parenthood in American families. In the years since 1970 which she uses as a benchmark, Sawhill reveals in detail the predictions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his seminal work of five years earlier (1965), in which he warned of perils to the black family as a result of rising rates of single parenting.

What has happened in the 50 years since then has affected black families, Hispanic families and white families. Almost unbelievably, approximately 70 percent of black births are now out of wedlock. Hispanics are next; and then come whites. Sawhill doesn't mention it in "Generation Unbound" but Asian-American out-of-welock births are still very low in comparison to all others.

What is going on? Sawhill points to a tipping point which occurred when the of age of first marriage became higher than the age of parenthood. In sum, children were born and present before marriage occurred. Of significance, such is not the case for college-graduate Americans, whose investments in education, a number of years in the workforce and marriage keep out-of-wedlock births at low levels.

Where the out-of-wedlock birth rates have become especially problematic is in the 20-to-30 year old range, among those soley with a high-school diploma or with some college only. Unlike the past where single parentage may have accidental because of death or primarily because of divorce, today it is happening largely because young women are having out-of-wedlock births either by accident or choice. Even with the most effective contraceptives in human history and with the option of legal abortion, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is at an historic all-time high.
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Format: Paperback
If you think every child ought to have a fair chance at success both economically and personally, read this book. We all know more and more children are being born into one-parent families, families that are disproportionately poor. Research shows that many single-parented children endure broken and re-broken family lives, with rising rates of abuse and neglect and a growing inability to form trusting relationships. Policymakers used to think a greater emphasis on marriage could help. Now, however, research shows that among the middle class and poor, for a variety of reasons marriage is becoming less and less common, and this situation is unlikely to turn around. Sawhill's book is a thoughtful, reasoned, compassionate look at one of our country’s most troubling problems and offers some practical suggestions that are not pie-in-the-sky but reasonably achievable as to how to improve the situation. This work presents a truly rich, wide, and highly readable overview of the relevant research and data. It envisions all sorts of possible questions, objections, and reactions, and speaks kindly and clearly to each of them. It's rare to consider a book of social research and policy recommendations as beautifully written, but this one is just that. It's even rarer to come across policy recommendations touching on intimate family matters that are achievable in the current political and social climate, but these are. A splendid achievement and a call to action.
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American family life has changed remarkably in my lifetime. I wonder what the changes mean for our future. This is a complex book because it covers so much ground: adult-adult relationships; adult-child relationships; contraception and abortion; related family law; economic and workplace changes; and public policy. The subject matter is changing almost daily, but it involves lifelong commitments, especially to children. A Washington Post review got me interested in the book.

Dr. Sawhill shows the convention of marriage, arising over thousands of years, unraveling in the past fifty. She supplies plenty of data, especially regarding adverse effects on low income, single-parent children. Two results seem clear. First, low-income children face new challenges in preparing for and succeeding in adulthood. Second, the man-woman, “till-death-do-us-part” marriage no longer reflects living arrangements for most Americans—especially those with assets below the top 25 percent. I found the adverse impacts on children surprising. Low income children in single parent families probably have a high likelihood of repeating the same economic struggles as their parents. Their plight affects all Americans.

Dr. Sawhill seeks public policies that change the game. She hopes that parents will plan for children and welcome them into nurturing homes. She supports existing education, health, and income supplements but notes these are not enough. Her key finding is that a high proportion of parents drift into unplanned and sometimes unwanted children. Existing contraception policies are not working. She calls for a shift to long acting reversible contraception (LARC), probably offered under the Affordable Care Act.
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"Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood" is an important and comprehensive expose of how unplanned parenthood in the lives of the "drifters" (low income/poor) severely limits economic success and opportunity. Half of all US births to unmarried young adults are unplanned. Sociologist Isabel V. Sawhill examines these startling trends without judgment, as she draws a comparison to the "planners" college educated adults, who establish their careers before marriage, marry within their class, their children are carefully planned, their divorce rate low. These "planner" families reach a level of stability and economic prosperity not experienced by the "drifters".

With decades of research available to support her findings, Sawhill discusses the cultural acceptance of the "hook-up culture" recreational sex; also unwed parenthood- the taboo and stigma against this from the 1950's-1960's where sexual relationships led to commitment and marriage. Single parent families represented only 7% of the population in 1950 and increased to 32% in 2013. Ambitious college students focus on their education first, followed by established employment, marriage and children. The "hook-up" culture clearly benefits men the most, (affecting college, middle class, and lower income people) also multiple partnered relationships where single parenthood (and the children born of these unions) are the norm and culturally accepted, without the stability of marriage.

Economic prospects for men and women with only a high school education/GED are limited to low wage work typically in the service economy. This has particularly reduced the pool of marriageable men, especially with the rates of male incarceration factored in.
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