Don't Worry, America: Millennials Still Want To Marry
March 25, 2014 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
The Pew Research Center reports that the marriage rate has plummeted. Today, just 26% of Millennials (born after 1982) are married. When they were the same age as Millennials are now, 36% of Generation X, 48% of Baby Boomers and 65% of the members of the Silent Generation were married. In 1960, 72% of all adults were married; today, that rate has dropped to 51%. The marriage-rate decline is especially steep among young people: For adults ages 18-29, the marriage rate has dropped from 59% to just 20%. Fully 44% of young adults, a much larger share than of any other generation, now agree that marriage is “obsolete.” But the truth is that marriage is still important to Millennials. While the dynamics surrounding the institution have changed, its aspirational value largely hasn’t.
These statistics have led many commentators to conclude that Americans—particularly Millennials—have struck marriage from their list of life goals. Yet this analysis is belied by surveys showing that aspirations to marry remain almost as high as ever. According to Pew’s data, most people who have never married (61%) would like to do so someday, and that’s even more true for the young. The latest Monitoring the Future report found that 78% of female high school seniors and 70% of males say that having a good marriage and family life is “extremely important” to them—numbers that are virtually unchanged since the 1970s.
Some have noted that younger Americans are increasingly pursuing higher education and building careers in place of getting married at traditional ages. True enough, but those who most successfully pursue college and a profession actually have seen the least rise in average marriage age. And, surprisingly, those with only a high school education have seen the biggest jump. As Pew pointed out in another report, as recently as 1990 people with a college degree were less likely to marry by age 30 than those who lacked one. Today, it is the other way around.
This reversal provides a key to understanding what’s driving most of the decline in overall marriage rates. Marriage as an ideal is still intact. But the ideal is deemed to be attainable only by a narrowing band of relatively high-achieving people. According to recent estimates, there is now a 16 percentage point gap in the married share of all adult college graduates (64%) versus all those with only a high school diploma or less (48%). In 1960, this gap was just four percentage points (76% versus 72%).
And there’s more to this story. Affluent and educated adults born after 1960 are, ten years after marriage, increasingly less likely to be divorced than adults born in the 1940s and ‘50s at the same milestone. So among these better-off Americans, at least, the health of marriages is actually improving. But the trend doesn’t hold up as well for the rest of America. According to a report by the National Marriage Project, married couples with an income above $50,000 have a 30% lower chance of divorcing than those with an income below $25,000, while having a college degree reduces the chances of divorce by 25%. Meanwhile, divorce rates remain high among those of modest means and education. Forty years ago, when Boomers were coming of age, the marriage behavior of the affluent and educated was more “bohemian” than the rest of America. Today, it is more “Victorian.”
Why this marriage gap ever arose in the first place–and why it is now inverting–is controversial. One major factor is the declining economic fortunes of working-class Americans, especially young working-class men. An academic study published in Family Relations hypothesizes that since working-class women are now often the main breadwinners, they are more likely to view marriage and the attendant risk of divorce as costly.
Taken together, these figures illustrate a world in which marriage has become far less universal as a lifeplan accessible to all–yet still very potent as an aspiration that younger Americans, Millennials especially, believe can only be enjoyed by those who can afford it. No, you don’t have to be as rich as the Zuckerbergs to get married. But you’d better be making a lot more than The Honeymooners ever did. Once, marriage was seen as a “cornerstone” in life. Today’s Millennials see it more as a “capstone.” The marriage rate among 20-somethings may be at an all-time low, but not for lack of desire.