A long time ago, marriage was an economic arrangement. Later, in the 18th century, marriage evolved into a way for people to express their love and commitment to each other. Now, it may again be heading toward radical change as millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are either not marrying at all or marrying much, much later. Marriage, one of the oldest social institutions left standing, is at risk of going extinct as we speak.
Let’s explore the millennial idea of marriage, why they are marrying later in life, why some may never tie the knot at all, and why they may not feel the need to commit.
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At this point in time, the median age of a millennial’s first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men, compared to the 1960s’ 21 years for women and 23 for men. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, an unparalleled number of millennials will remain unmarried through age 40. Furthermore, studies predict a 70% drop in the marriage rate. This is around 10–20% lower than the last three generations! In fact, a 2014 paper out of the Pew Research Center reports this is the biggest drop in the marriage rate in history.
Modern model of marriage
When asked what kind of marriage leads to the more satisfying way of life, 72% of millennials choose the modern egalitarian model—in which the husband and wife both work and take care of the household and children—over the traditional male breadwinner / female homemaker model (22%).
Causes of the decrease
Millennials know they can rely on dating apps to help them meet a potential partner. Bumble and Tinder, the two top competitors, have nearly 70 million registered users between them. And while many take to dating apps to find a partner, these users remain cynical of how well they work. Justin McLeod, the founder of Hinge, the self-titled “relationship app,” said the Hinge team “realized lots of people were looking for a serious relationship, but most apps aren’t designed for this.”
Facades in social media
Social media, in addition to dating apps, promote the idea of a relationship more than the relationship itself. Because millennials spend an average of six hours a week on social media, they may long for a relationship when they see their married friend post-honeymoon photos or their newly engaged friend change their Facebook relationship status. However, this dependence on social media–filtered world is one of the reasons fewer millennials are getting into committed relationships.
Older generations may label millennials as “lazy.” But the truth is that more millennials than ever are giving their jobs more attention than relationships. While Generation X and the baby boomers were prone to marry while in school or as they climbed the corporate ladder, millennials take the opposite approach. As much as 55% of young Americans feel that marriage and children are “not very important.” A large majority cites education and economic accomplishments as “extremely important parts of adulthood.”
So much possibilities
Millennials know they can find nearly anyone in the world at the click of the button. This fosters both a world of endless dating possibilities. This awareness of endless possibilities raises the millennials’ standards for a partner. So despite the fact that they have the tools to start a relationship at their fingertips, they rarely use them because they’re subconsciously aware something better could always come along. The book Premarital Sex in America claims 94% of millennials insist on holding out for a soulmate.
Women’s rising income
Before the late 20th century, society saw marriage as a necessity, especially for women. If men wanted kids and a profession, they needed someone to care for their children. If women wanted guaranteed financial security without fighting the glass ceiling, they needed a husband to provide for them. Although gender obstacles are still real, the need to marry has significantly diminished. A study by N’ama Shenhav, PhD, discovered a 7% decline in women who married for every 10% increase in women’s wages (relative to men’s).
Cynicism due to parents
It’s widely accepted that half of all marriages end in divorce. Millennials who experienced their parents’ divorce firsthand are likely cynical. According to the Pew Research Center, the baby boomers’ divorce rates doubled from 1990 to 2017. Millennials may have developed an aversion to marriage because of their parents’ divorce. This is one of the most common effects of infidelity on families and children. It is also making those who decide to marry more cautious when choosing a partner. Researchers see this in their lower instance of divorce compared to previous generations. A University of Michigan economist predicted only one-third of millennial marriages to end in divorce.
A strong sense of identity
Millennials also are gaining more life experiences by waiting to marry. In the career world, despite the burden of student loans, they try to climb the ladder and become financially independent. They are exploring their individual interests and values and gaining valuable experience. Knowing who you are, what you want, and how to achieve it is a solid foundation to build a lifelong relationship on. For them, figuring out important life values and goals before jumping into marriage makes more sense.
Increase in cohabitation
Over 16 million millennial women are moms, but not all of them married. Around 52% called being a good parent one of the most important goals in their lives. On the other hand, only 30% called a successful marriage as an important life goal. In fact, having children out of wedlock has become the norm for millennial parents. Other millennials think lifelong cohabitation may be a more convenient option than the legal binds of marriage. Because marriage historically has been a legal, economic, religious, and social institution, younger couples may not want to give in to those kinds of pressures. Instead, they claim their relationship as entirely their own. It should be based on love and commitment, without the need for external validation.
Just recently, popular comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted, “Why would I want the govt involved in my love life? Ew. It’s barbaric.”
The millennial idea of marriage
Millennials actually admit to wanting commitment more than older generations ever have. While folks see them as “commitment-phobes” who just seek casual sex, data from YouGov reveals that over two-thirds of people ages 18–34 express interest in a committed relationship.
Millennials are looking for a partner who can fulfill all their needs. They want a financial equal, an erotic partner, a best friend, and someday, a strong parent. That’s a tall order. And if a potential partner falls short, they’re quick to look elsewhere, said Behnke.
Jennifer Behnke, a marriage and family therapist who works primarily with millennials in Florida, says, “They won’t stay in a relationship that’s lacking. Millennials know there is plenty of fish in the sea or on dating apps, many of whom would happily meet their standards.”
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, licensed psychologist and couples counselor in Boulder, Colorado, also says, “Millennials today entering marriage are much more aware of what they need to be happy in a relationship. They desire equality in overall workload and chores, and they desire both spouses having a voice and sharing power.”
What molded the millennial idea of marriage? An ingrained sense of the world as random and subject to unpredictable crises is likely feeding the millennials’ relationship behaviors and their cautious approach to big life decisions such as marriage, according to Tamara Erickson. Here are the major events they have faced:
During the millennials’ childhood, the United States suffered at the hands of domestic and international terrorists. The oldest Millennials were in high school during the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. They were in early college during the Columbine school massacre of 1999. Just two years later, they witnessed September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Young adult millennials suffered through the global economic crisis of 2008–2009 along with older Americans. To a youthful generation unaccustomed to booms and busts, widescale financial instability has reinforced the sense of a random world. “Difficult economic circumstances are a commonality among civic generations across history,” notes Morley Winograd.
Millennials have grown up in a period when US family structures are radically diversifying. Since divorced parents raised millennials, this generation witnessed a great diversity in the families around them. Because of this, they are less critical of gay marriage, cohabitation, single parenthood, and other unconventional family types. They feel this same tolerance should be applied to their own relationships.
Sharp increase in divorce
In 1998, news that Pres. Bill Clinton had been cheating on First Lady Hillary Clinton shocked the world. Americans gleefully threw White House intern Monica Lewinsky under the bus because of that. Now, Pres. Donald Trump has not only cheated on multiple partners. He also bragged about it quite a bit, and millennials aren’t impressed. A July study from the Institute for Family Studies says that older generations were historically much more likely to cheat on their partners than millennials. In fact, their rate of extramarital flings has increased recently. In contrast, millennials have reportedly been more committed in monogamous relationships over the past two years.
“These are the first generations to come of age during the sexual revolution,” the study reports, “so it’s understandable they are more likely to have sex with someone without their spouses.” Millennials, on the other hand, grew up in the households of divorced parents, explaining their hesitance to cheat.
It’s also worth pointing out that millennials are the generation most hesitant to commit to monogamous marriages in the first place. Part of that hesitation may be, according to this data, rooted in the fact that millennials are the most vehemently against cheating.
Is this a good thing?
The millennial idea of marriage is not necessarily a bad move, a new study from dating site eHarmony found. It showed that the longer people wait to marry, the happier they are in relationships. The survey found that couples who waited longer after meeting and got to know each other before marrying scored higher on a “happiness index.” In fact, the unhappiest group said they got married because “it was time,” while the happiest cited “love.”
“There is pressure from culture and family and friends to pick somebody to marry at a certain time,” Grant Langston, chief executive officer of eHarmony said. “That is a terrible idea — people need to push back on that idea because relationships prove more successful if they do.”
Waiting also has major payoffs emotionally. “Waiting to marry means spending more time learning who you are and what you want,” Brianna McGurran, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet, said. “So when you find the right person, the relationship is more fulfilling — you enter into it knowing you’re truly choosing to do so, and you’d be just fine on your own.”
Gen Xers’ request for balance will be replaced by millennials’ demand for a truly seamless blend between work and family. The level of blending that millennials have already begun as young professionals will be applied in their family lives. Practices such as telecommuting, flex-time, on-site child care, and full-time access to social media could become mandatory for attracting and retaining talent.
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