Marriage rates in the United States and most other developed countries continue to decline, and some question whether today’s young adults have given up on marriage. In a book due out next month, family researchers Drs Brian Willoughby and Spencer James of Brigham Young University, assure us that the vast majority of Millennials do value marriage and want to marry but have no definite plans to do so.
In The Marriage Paradox, published by Oxford University Press as part of its Emerging Adulthood Series, Willoughby and James describe the ways that social changes and changing ideas about marriage shape and complicate the path to marriage for this generation. Dr Willoughby, the lead author of the study, highlights some of the findings in the following interview with MercatorNet.
Young adults are not marrying at the rate they did in the 1970s. Given other social changes, can anyone be surprised at this – or is there something unforeseen about the situation today?
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be too surprising. The trend of delayed marriage (and childbearing for most segments of the population) have been seen for decades. The surprising thing is that this trend is continuing despite the fact that young adults keep telling us marriage is among the most important transitions in their life. Almost 80 percent of young adults still say they want to marry or expect to marry someday. If marriage was simply less important to modern young adults, these trends would make more sense. The fact that marriage is just as important (if not more) than it was a generation ago to young adults is what has so many people baffled.
So Millennials actually want to get married, but when?
This is more complicated. Instead of believing there is an ideal age of marriage like their parents, Millennials believe that marriage should happen on their own timetable, one that is personalized to their circumstances. Most are still shooting for 25, which appears to be a magic number of sorts when Millennials believe they will be settled down into their careers. However, the interviews I did clearly suggested that Millennials believe that the best time to get married is a personal thing for everyone (although they certainly still judge others for getting married “too early” or “too late”).
Do marital ambitions differ according to a young person’s socio-economic background?
Yes they do. Those with more disadvantaged backgrounds, especially women, are less likely to have clear marital ambitions. This is largely due to the availability of what they perceive as marriageable men. Women in poverty often do not perceive men in their social circles as marriage material and instead place more emphasis on motherhood (Kathryn Edin has written on this topic quite a bit). Couples in poverty are also more likely to delay marriage due to finances, feeling they need to save for a wedding or that marriage would mean a loss of resources (welfare benefits, etc.). For college educated individuals, marriage is clearly on the table and expected.
For the college educated, this is one of, if not the most important factors that has changed marriage and dating for the current generation of young adults. They are spending the majority of their early 20’s trying to get an education. They then are entering a job market that is weak is many fields, will likely underpay them, and will require them to be willing to relocate. Young adults are struggling trying to find ways that long-term relationships can fit in this current job climate.
Most feel like they need to give themselves five to seven years to settle into their career before relationships would even be feasible. Marriage feels like an unattainable goal that might happen in the future if everything works out perfectly. To put it in their own words: If I know I’m going to move two to three times in the next five years with a few different companies, and I know any potential partner is going to do the same thing, how would we ever navigate a long-term committed relationship?
The changing role of women has clearly had a big impact on marriage. If women (college-educated women anyway) are to have the same career prospects as men, they probably won’t be able to have babies in their 20s. How important is “gender equality” for Millennials?
Gender equality is very important to Millennials. There is little sense for most that their marriages will be based on the sole breadwinner model. This ties into my previous answer. If they assume women will have their own career, many Millennials (men and women) worry how they will coordinate and navigate another person’s life trajectory. This is one of the most cited worries I heard from college-educated young adults. And yes, this does impact fertility as well and has led most young adults to limit how many children they want and for a growing minority, to decide to forgo children all together.
Are young women and men aware of the fertility issues that rise from delayed procreation? How do they respond to the risk of infertility?
This is related to one of the many paradoxes I talk about in my book. I mentioned earlier that young adults no longer believe there is an ideal age of marriage and that getting married is a personalized decision. This is true; yet they also believe people can marry “too late”. This too late is often tied to fertility. They recognize that marrying in the mid-late 30’s (or even early 30’s) could limit fertility. So while they want to have complete freedom when it comes to marriage, they recognize the pressures of fertility.
One of the most popular articles on The Atlantic since 2012 is headed “Not wanting kids in entirely normal” and there are more articles along those lines in the media. Is marriage still about children — “having a family” – for Millennials, or is it more about finding a soul mate?
There has been and continues to be a disconnect between children and marriage for Millennials. While most college-educated young adults still believe children should come after marriage, they also firmly believe that this is a personal choice and no longer look down on those that have children outside of marriage. Having said that, most of them still have the ideal of “family” in their mind when they think of marriage. However, many also feel this is difficult if not impossible in our modern society. Tied to this is an increase in individualism that has changed what being a parent and spouse means. They believe you get married when you find someone that makes YOU happy. They believe you have children when they will make YOUR life fulfilled by becoming a parent. Having a family is something the serves individual happiness and contentment; it is less about societal obligation than it might have been 1-2 generations ago.
Delaying marriage does not necessarily mean delaying sexual relationships today, or even cohabitation. Are these choices contributing to the delay in marrying?
These infrequently came up in our study. Cohabitation does not appear to be a replacement for marriage for most young adults. It’s simply what you do before marriage, either because you’re not ready or because you’re testing the waters. Sexual relationships do not appear to be a major factor connected to the delaying of marriage.
Almost 90 percent of the young adults you studied said their parents influenced the way they think about marriage. Is this good news or bad?
It depends. Those that had stable families and educated parents, tended to have very positive and realistic beliefs about marriage and seemed headed on the right direction. Many with divorced parents were struggling with wanting to engage in an institution they saw as creating pain or sorrow. Many also saw their married parents in highly contentious relationships where they “should have divorced.” These young adults often had just as negative views of marriage as those from broken homes. In other words, the news was both good and bad. Parents clearly had a major influence on these young adults (almost all talked with us extensively about how their parents influenced their views on marriage), but the type of influence varied widely.
Did religious belief and practice influence ideas about marriage in your sample?
Yes they did. Highly religious young adults tended to be more positive and motivated to marry than other young adults. We identified a “counter-culture” group of young adults who were making early transitions to marriage – that is, in their early 20’s — despite the prevailing culture saying this is too young. The vast majority of these young adults who were transitioning to marriage (and parenthood in some cases) were religious. The family trajectory gap between religious and non-religious young adults appears to be growing.
What three social changes would be most helpful to Millennials in helping them achieve their marital aspirations?
1. Education about the realities of healthy marital relationships. Most Millennials have unrealistic expectations about what marriage is supposed to be like. Education about the things to do in their 20s that would set them up have the highest chances of a happy marriage would be helpful.
2. More family friendly policies in the workplace that allowed young adults the flexibility to start families. Parental leave and other policies that promote work-family balance would make many Millennials feel like they did not have to sacrifice their careers to have a family.
3. Education that helps Millennials see the importance and value of children and parenting. Much of Europe is in the midst of a fertility crisis and the U.S. might not be far behind. A fertility rate that falls below the replacement rate can have serious economic consequences.
Dr. Brian Willoughby is an Associate Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles on the topic of young adulthood and relationships, held numerous leadership positions within the International Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, and currently holds editorial board positions at four top academic journals. He is the lead author of The Marriage Paradox, to be published early July by OUP Academic.