Prioritizing independent security over commitment
As Hazel Cills, staff writer for an online teen publication Rookie put it, “Getting married is completely obsolete from my idea of success … most of the time when I think of success I think about my relationships, and my writing career.”
While more and more articles, reports and statistics compare millennial women to past generations, the notion that time creates change becomes ever more apparent.
As the youngest generation of adults, millennials, also known as today’s 18 to 33-year-olds, are challenging traditional notions of love and marriage. In 1960, the median age of first-time marriage in the U.S. was 21 for women and 23 for men; now it is 26 for women and 28 for men as of 2011 according to a study done by the Pew Research Center titled “For Millennials, Parenthood Trumps Marriage.”
Pew’s findings reflect a clear shift toward delayed marriage. However, that shift may be linked at least in part to higher education, Constance L. Shehan, professor of sociology at the University of Florida, said.
“Well-educated men and women with careers are much more likely to postpone marriage,” Shehan said.
Shehan’s findings echoed a 2001 U.S. Census Bureau report titled “Fertility of American Women.” According to a subsection of the report titled, “Fertility Indicators for Women 15 to 44 Years Old by Selected Characteristics,” the number of women who engage in marriage decreases based on level of education, as does the number of women who have children.
For 20-something men and women, delayed marriage can be attributed to social and economic trends according to The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia’s “Knot Yet” study. According to the study, the economic costs of family life have increased while average wages have decreased, eroding lower and middle-class communities across the nation.
As more employers require new hires to have degrees, society most likely will not return to the days where jobs straight out of high school pay good pensions and wages and the jobs available to most recent high-school grads remain low-wage with minimal-to-no benefits, according to information presented in the study.
In response, college-educated millennial adults are more inclined to seek financial security and stability before marrying and bearing children.
“The costs of living have risen and many young people are finding themselves having to catch up,” Shehan said.
However, establishing a sturdy financial base may not be as easy as it seems, seeing as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed alongside increases in tuition and housing. According to the New America Foundation, outstanding student loan debt in the United States currently amounts to over $1.2 trillion, recently exceeding total credit card debt.
Additionally, “both the amount of money borrowed and the percentage of students borrowing from 2011 to 2012 have marked the highest rates of borrowing and indebtedness to date,” according to the New American Foundation. In spite of these increases, students and their families have taken on debt to make up the difference through private and public loans, with the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree owing about $30,000 in student loans.
“Instead of marriage being a vehicle into adulthood and stability, young adults now see it as the cherry on top, the thing you do once you’re established and financially secure,” Jennifer Ludden wrote in her article, “For more Millennials, It’s Kids First, Marriage Maybe,” published by NPR. Shehan echoed Ludden’s article’s point, “People with and without college educations are having a harder time finding jobs, making them more reluctant to marry.”
Ludden emphasized the dramatic cultural shift young people are propagating when she asked a millennial couple, “Isn’t marrying young and poor and then working your way up the time-honored way?”
The couple replied, “That seems terrifying at this point. It’s hard enough to work up just on your own.”
Ludden’s line of questioning revealed an underlying trend among millennials: the essentialism of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. In order to realize their goals, millennial adults are taking steps to further their education and stabilize their work lives before they settle down.
“Investing in education and employment, most millennials feel that they should be done with schooling and established on some sort of career trajectory before getting married,” Sharon Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, said. “But specifically, most young women nowadays believe that they will have to work and support themselves, and so they are investing in their own human capital skills in their late teens and early to mid-20s.”
With women outpacing men in college enrollment by seven percent in 2012 as reported by Pew in 2013, it is safe to say that women are becoming more educated than in generations past. In fact, over a span of 10 years, the educational attainment of women ages 25 to 64 in the labor force has risen substantially from 25 percent to 38 percent according to a 2014 study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of changing demographic trends in education, Shehan said young women are eager to establish a financial foundation for themselves through their careers before settling down.
Moreover, as women are enrolling in college at record highs and becoming better-educated than their mothers and grandmothers, their workplace options are expanding allowing for more opportunities. This is evidenced by social and demographic trends outlined in a 2013 Pew study, in which millennial women were surveyed on their attitudes about gender and work. The results show that millennial women share many of the same values about work as their male counterparts; they want a job that they enjoy and that provides security and opportunities for flexibility, thus placing relatively little importance on pay. Although the study relates the success of young women in recent decades to educational gains, it also highlights the institutional biases women perceive as hindering or hurtful to their aspirations of stability and security, such as pay equity and responsibilities of parenthood.
Taking into consideration the institutional biases the 2013 Pew study outlines, such as the gender wage gap, occupational segregation and stereotypes women face in the workplace, “I can understand why some people are holding off on marrying, since establishing a career takes time,” Stephanie Román, research assistant at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said.
The high costs associated with having a child can justify delaying marriage among millennial women. Citing an IWPR publication titled “Campus Child Care Declining Even As Growing Numbers of Parents Attend College,” Román said: “Child care is among one of the largest expenses that new parents face, and much has been written about the lack of financially accessible quality child care. Affordable, reliable child care is crucial in raising a child.”
According to a Nov. 7, 2011, Pew Study titled “The Rising Age Gap in Economic Wellbeing,” Americans under 35 are suffering the biggest wealth gap between younger and older Americans in history, making it very difficult for young people to have the means to afford child care while simultaneously paying off their debt.
Despite wavering attitudes as to whether delaying marriage is a good decision or not, “The Knot Yet” study, as well as other research over the last years, has repeatedly demonstrated that women who postpone marriage and make the decision to do so are less likely to divorce and more likely to attain economic stability. It also showed delaying marriage improves the socioeconomic prospects of educated women and their families, allowing women to seek other opportunities for personal development such as careers and relationships.
Marriage has long been considered a deeply personal decision. Before settling down for good, Kathleen Gerson, professor of sociology at New York University, quoted one of the participants in a CNN article regarding her study titled, “No Need to Marry Young”: “‘You need to find out who you are first’ before you are ready to choose a lifelong partner.” Further, Gerson wrote that amid our post-industrial, hi-tech economy, it takes longer to gain personal insights and occupational skills to make a successful transition to adulthood.
“It takes time not just to develop the practical knowledge needed to negotiate a rapidly changing world,” Gerson wrote, “but also to gain a clear sense of purpose about one’s own life and about the kind of person one wishes to have as a life partner.”
In focusing their energy in academic and personal goals, Gerson maintained young women are keenly aware of the challenges facing today’s relationships, and because of this, they are stopping themselves from getting married “too early,” making sure they are comfortable with themselves first.
The majority of Americans ages 18 to 34 still hope to marry later in life, despite the growing trend of delayed marriage, according to a Gallup poll conducted by Frank Newport and Joy Wilke.
The poll results also reveal that the first and second most frequently mentioned reasons as to why people are still single and unmarried is because “they have not found the right person” and because they are “too young/not ready.” The third most frequently mentioned reason was because of “money/financial reasons.” Though the answers were straightforward, the results reveal that even though finances can play a part in delaying marriage, the importance of personal development in oneself and in one’s spouse is equally, if not more, valuable than financial security.
Even as more young adults defer marriage, young people continue to pursue other milestones associated with long-lasting relationships. With more than 4 million couples currently cohabitating, according to the 2013 census, cohabitation before marriage is emerging as a rite of passage for millennial adults. In fact, Pew found in 2011 that young adults are more likely to cohabitate than the previous generation, Generation X.
“Cohabitation allows for couples to talk about situations such as the possibility of getting pregnant, how to split household expenses and general expectations about gender roles even before marriage,” Sassler said. Cohabitation is, according to Sassler, an “unconventional trial run” before marriage, allowing millennials to receive many of the emotional and practical benefits of being in a serious relationship, without the rings and labels.
Relationship practices such as cohabitation, “alter how individuals view the institution of marriage, the performance of relationships and commitment in general,” Sassler said.
Nonetheless, as the institution of marriage is changing, it is important to recognize that society is changing in many other aspects as well. It is hard for Sassler to say how much delaying marriage plays a role in lower marriage rates among millennials. This is considering other possible contributing factors such as, “high levels of union instability and divorce, or a woman’s ability to work and support themselves without marriage.”
It is unclear whether young adults are delaying marriage out of choice or out or necessity; however, both contribute to overall marriage trends. Men and women are delaying marriage in part so that they can invest in their own human capital, through going to school and establishing themselves at a job. Those are choice-based reasons for delay, but Sassler contends that a reason as to why young women may not be getting married is because men are not ready to get married either.
“In fact, despite millennials saying they desire egalitarian relationships, some evidence suggests that on many relationship fronts, from hooking up to asking someone out on a date to proposing marriage, men still retain the asking prerogative,” she said.
The reason for the decline in earlier-life marriage is multifaceted. Both Sassler and Román agree that women need marriage less economically; because of increases in higher education rates, it is easier for women to work and support themselves. On the other hand, men, as Sassler said, “don’t need marriage either to be in sexual relationships, since they can live with a partner or engage in serial sexual relationships.” Changes in economics, gender roles and growing acceptance of different kinds of lifestyles have contributed to the creation of the trend in marital delay among young people.
Amidst changing tides of marriage and society as a whole, the choice to marry is still very popular. With that said, relationships themselves are often indefinable.
“My friends and I all have differing relationships with people. Sometimes it’s just having sex and not dating anyone; sometimes it’s just dating several people at once; sometimes it’s monogamous and long term,” Cills said. “It’s completely different depending on the person. If anything, I think people are more open to fluid relationships that aren’t set in stone.”
Michele Hau is a culture and communications major with a concentration in defying social norms. Email her at [email protected].