The Institution of Marriage: Still Going Strong

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, America’s young people embrace the idea of marriage, though they understand it to mean something different than it once did.

National Journal
Gillian White
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Gillian White
June 16, 2015, 7:28 a.m.

For dec­ades, the av­er­age age at which Amer­ic­ans marry has been creep­ing high­er. In 1960, the av­er­age groom was al­most 23 and his bride a few months over 20. Ac­cord­ing to data from Pew Re­search Cen­ter, by 2011, av­er­age mar­riage age had climbed to nearly 29 years for men and 26 and a half years for wo­men. There have been lots of data sup­port­ing the no­tion that, more and more, young adults are delay­ing mar­riage. Ex­perts have provided many the­or­ies ex­plain­ing this phe­nomen­on: Gender dy­nam­ics have changed, cas­u­al dat­ing is more en­cour­aged, more wo­men are head­ing to col­lege and then on to de­mand­ing ca­reers, and — most re­cently — maybe most young adults just aren’t in­ter­ested in get­ting mar­ried any­more.

The most re­cent All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or poll at­temp­ted not only to fig­ure out wheth­er or not young­er Amer­ic­ans are wait­ing to wed, but also to gauge the thoughts, feel­ings, and views Amer­ic­ans young and old have on the top­ic.

In fol­low-up in­ter­views with those who par­ti­cip­ated in the poll, it was clear that, over the past few dec­ades, sen­ti­ment about mar­riage has changed quite a bit. Many young­er Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed en­thu­si­ast­ic sup­port for same-sex uni­ons, co­hab­it­a­tion, and cas­u­al ro­mances — the types of re­la­tion­ships that they think their par­ents would have had dif­fer­ent feel­ings about at their age. Sarah Bar­ton, 34, says that her path to mar­riage is not the same as the one her par­ents took. She lived with her now-hus­band for sev­er­al years pri­or to mar­riage, as did her sib­lings, to her par­ents’ dis­may. “They didn’t like that or ap­prove. But for my young­er cous­ins and fam­ily mem­bers, I strongly en­cour­age it,” she says.

And though she be­lieves that the tra­di­tions sur­round­ing mar­riage might be chan­ging, she still sees it as a valu­able in­sti­tu­tion, es­pe­cially when it comes to hav­ing chil­dren. “It’s im­port­ant fin­an­cially, and if something should hap­pen to one of us, we are pro­tec­ted; we don’t have to go through es­tab­lish­ing guard­i­an­ship or things like that.”

The bulk of re­spond­ents — 74 per­cent over­all — thought that mar­riage was still a mean­ing­ful in­sti­tu­tion. But when par­ti­cipants were sor­ted by age, there were some dif­fer­ences. About two-thirds of young­er par­ti­cipants felt that mar­riage was still rel­ev­ant and led to a hap­pi­er, health­i­er, more ful­filled life. But older par­ti­cipants were much more pos­it­ive, with three of every four older par­ti­cipants say­ing that mar­riage still had an im­port­ant place in so­ci­ety. Forty-year-old Dustin Hen­son agrees with his Gen­er­a­tion X peers: “From what I’ve seen from fam­ily and friends, people that are mar­ried are health­i­er, they’re hap­pi­er, they’re able to handle prob­lems bet­ter.”

Des­pite dif­fer­ing some­what on wheth­er or not they should get mar­ried at all, young­er and older Amer­ic­ans ul­ti­mately had very sim­il­ar views when it came to the best age at which to get mar­ried. Sixty-five per­cent of young­er Amer­ic­ans said that the ages of 25 to 30 were op­tim­al for ty­ing the knot, and 63 per­cent of older Amer­ic­ans agreed. In­ter­est­ingly, since nearly 60 per­cent of older re­spond­ents got mar­ried be­fore they were 25, that means that they got mar­ried earli­er than when they now say is ideal.

Bar­ton says that she doesn’t think that there’s a cor­rect age, but she agrees that wait­ing a bit can be help­ful. “I think when you’re a little bit older, you’re more com­fort­able and self-con­fid­ent, and there­fore are more com­fort­able and self-con­fid­ent in your mar­riage,” she says. “From my ex­per­i­ence, it was help­ful to be in my mid-20s. My mom got mar­ried when she was 19.”

Young­er Amer­ic­ans’ pref­er­ence to delay mar­riage a bit may be be­cause they’re much more con­cerned about their eco­nom­ic situ­ation and what that means for start­ing a new life with someone. Nearly three-fourths of young­er sur­vey par­ti­cipants said that fin­an­cial se­cur­ity should pre­face mar­riage, while only 55 per­cent of older Amer­ic­ans felt sim­il­arly. Hen­son says that he un­der­stands the hes­it­a­tion of young­er adults, es­pe­cially since the eco­nomy and the rising cost of liv­ing is mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for the young­er gen­er­a­tion to get their lives star­ted. “It’s get­ting so ex­pens­ive just to be out on your own. You want to make sure you can handle ‘us’ on our own once you’re mar­ried,” he says.

Fin­an­cial fear may also be why groups were split when it came to chil­dren and fin­ances. A sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion, more than 85 per­cent, of young re­spond­ents thought that hav­ing your life fin­an­cially to­geth­er be­fore hav­ing kids was in­cred­ibly im­port­ant, while only 67 per­cent of older Amer­ic­ans felt that way. Older Amer­ic­ans were also more likely to say that the ideal situ­ation for rais­ing a child was when one par­ent worked and one provided child care, versus hav­ing a house­hold with two work­ing par­ents.

When it comes to their views on mar­riage and fam­il­ies, mil­len­ni­als don’t quite fit in­to the same mold as their pre­de­cessors, but when it comes to their de­sire to have stable, long-last­ing re­la­tion­ships and fam­il­ies, this gen­er­a­tion might prove more tra­di­tion­al than they seem.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from The At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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