It’s not enough that they want to upend the modern workplace. Now the millennials are out to upend marriage as well. Wedding planners and finger-wagging moralists are beside themselves. But maybe the kids are on to something — as long as it doesn’t go too far.
The millennials are the much-maligned generation born in the 1980s through the early 2000s, raised on Harry Potter and 9/11, tech-savvy children of doting parents now entering a work world shaking from the Great Recession. They are, supposedly, too focused on self-actualization and not enough on making money for others. They expect the workplace to kowtow to them. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but I understand critics blaming those same doting parents for continuing to provide them with a place to live and free health care coverage until they’re 26 (thanks, Obamacare!). With goodies like these, who needs to work?
And now comes a new report from researchers at the Urban Institute: Millennials aren’t getting married either. The percentage who will be unmarried by the time they hit age 40 could be as high as 30 percent, predicts the study. Of course, that still means 70 percent will get married, but that figure is well below the marriage rates for early baby boomers (91 percent), late boomers (87 percent), and Gen Xers (82 percent). The Urban Institute researchers appropriately offer a caveat — these are forecasts, after all — and acknowledge that what might really be going on is that millennials are just postponing marriage rather than forswearing the institution altogether.
Let’s hope so. Not getting married at all could prove tragic.
The onset of adulthood — post-college until age 30 or so — has historically been settling-down time: finding a job, coupling up, getting married, having kids. It’s a world thoroughly plumbed by television shows from “Friends” to “How I Met Your Mother.” For those of that age, there are times when it seems as if weddings dominate the social calendar, as one friend after another becomes engaged, plans the event, and then insists everyone show up. Too much money is spent on all of this; indeed, the wedding business is a major $52 billion industry, with the average now costing almost $30,000. The day itself leaves parents of the bride financially broken (an antiquated tradition, by the way), friends of the bride with dresses they’ll never again wear, and everyone else with a mixture of aching heads and embarrassed regrets.
And for all that, there’s a strong chance they’ll just divorce anyway.
I overstate my cynicism. I’ve been to a number of great weddings, some quite recently. Still, one can’t help think that postponing wedlock would, for many, be a smart thing. Older adults would doubtless embark upon marriage with a greater seriousness of purpose. The day would be less about celebration and more about commitment. And who knows? With both parties steadily employed, perhaps mom and dad wouldn’t have to foot the bill.
But we should worry if the postponement is permanent. The Urban Institute data suggest that, straight or gay, people continue to couple up; they just don’t get married. That’s a problem. It’s not only the legal benefits of marriage — such as better tax treatment, visitation rights, and inheritance. Marriage is also a shield against poverty; the married are economically more secure (even when it comes to divorce). Then too — and of great consequence — children thrive better when raised in stable households.
Troubling too is that marriage rates — including for millennials — break along demographic lines. Better off and white individuals tend to get married far more frequently than those who are less well off or minorities. It’s a “marriage gap,” argues social observer Kay S. Hymowitz, creating a kind of matrimonial underclass “destined for separate and unequal futures.”
The upshot: Millennials waiting for marriage is probably to the good. But they — and everyone else — will regret it if they wait too long.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.