Why Millennials say marriage can wait

Studies show that delaying marriage can be a good thing

Why Millennials say marriage can wait

Why Millennials say marriage can wait

   On Friday nights, a group of University of Washington seniors meet for “girls night” to update each other on their busy lives. They trade jokes, hoist their beer glasses in a ritual cheer, “To college!” and reminisce about how quickly their four years have flown by. 

Now what? Career? Finances? Marriage? Kids? 

The eight women laugh and debate about who will marry first. But Kayla Thompson, 21, an advocate for putting off marriage, stops and demands that it’s crucial to wait until they are at least 26 years old to commit to wedlock. 

“We should honestly just stay single forever, like in ‘Sex in the City,’” she joked. 

They laugh. A few agree, and they aren’t joking. 

Thompson is a UW communication major who says she wants to make the most of her 20s. She is someone who teases her friends about the benefits of the single life, frequently turning to the phrase, “You only live once.” But she’s serious when she says she won’t marry until 28 at the earliest. The reason?

Her education and career. 

“I don’t think there’s an ideal age for marriage. There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish before I settle down and have a suburban lifestyle,” Thompson said. “I want to travel the world and establish a career, and not just to have gotten my undergraduate [degree] to be a stay-at-home housewife. It’s not necessarily because I don’t want to be tied down, but there’s no rush.”

A friend of Thompson’s, Ali Maier, 21, works as a part-time research assistant for a Seattle-based biotech/pharmaceutical company. She agrees with Thompson. “I don’t want to get married until I’m 28 or 30 because I’m not looking to settle down until I’m completely content with where I’m at in life,” she said.

Maier hopes to work for her company for a year and then go to graduate school, which can take up to six years in her field of study. 

“Having a stable career for a woman is a very important accomplishment nowadays, and men have been doing it forever, so why can’t we?” she said.


Commitment is a process

Many young adults today are holding off on the idea of marriage until they feel they have reached career and financial success. In 2010, the Census Bureau found that the median age at which men are marrying these days is 28, five years later than in 1950. 

Women are waiting even longer. Their median age of marriage is now 26, a six-year increase since 1950 and the highest median age since the government began collecting this information more than a century ago.

While it may not seem like an alarming number at first, the average marital age suggests that changes in gender roles, the development of new technologies and the recession are radically reshaping the institution of marriage. 

Sociologist and assistant professor Aimee Dechter of the University of Washington, said societal and economic changes are key factors in the delay in marriage, which has had long-term changes since the beginning of the 20th century.

Dechter’s expertise focuses on how economic and career dynamics are altering the institution of marriage. She said the U.S. economy and women’s financial independence are delaying marriage.

 “People who have financial difficulties are wary to marry,” Dechter said. “They are not as confident that the marriage will last because they’re aware that finances put a lot of stress on the relationship.” 

The age of marriage among Millennials has been rising exponentially, and women are a key reason, she said. Today’s women are more eager than ever to pursue higher education, establish a career and support themselves independently.

Dechter also said our society’s attitude toward marriage has radically changed. People don’t need to rush into marriage because it’s much more acceptable for people to live together and have sex outside of marriage, she suggested.

UW senior Emily Ross, who works as a copy editor for a Seattle publishing company, said, “I think the age change from back in the day to now is a combination of responses to social changes and a new standard of economic dependence that this country requires from someone to be independent.”

Sociology Professor Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University agrees. His book, “A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval,” argues that, in a time of shifting gender roles, the growth of women’s economic independence and society’s focus on careers may be causing young adults to turn away from marriage.

That’s the attitude of Tino Sismanis, 22, a recent University of British Columbia graduate and full-time marketing representative in Seattle. “My first priority at 22 is being financially stable before I dive into any serious relationship or thoughts about marriage,” he said.

“It’s less of a social norm to be married so young,” he added. “If you grew up in the ‘50s, everyone was married right away and having kids, whether or not it was the best thing to do. I think now it’s less of a culture of marriage, and people aren’t getting married so early so there’s less social pressure.”


A new phenomenon 

According to The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, marriage really is less of a social norm. Data from its research have indicated that more than 20 percent of 3,600 surveyed adults ages 18 to 30 have very low motivation for marriage. They view the commitment as a risk that restricts their independence, and some are simply hesitant because of the divorce statistics.

Millennials are adopting an evolutionary notion of marriage. Once they have reached maturity, financial security and independence, then they can begin considering marriage. In the past, marriage once represented passage into adulthood. But now, you must become an adult to get married.

So what does this mean for society and future generations? 

Marriage isn’t going away anytime soon, but political, economic and societal changes are transforming the way Millennials prioritize their relationships. With the economic decline and rising numbers of unemployment, getting married just doesn’t offer the same benefits that it used to. 

Some scholars suggest that cohabitation and partnerships without marriage may become the new trend among future generations who still want to share their life with someone without saying “I do.”

While only time can tell how the institution will continue to evolve, some studies suggest the age at which people marry may continue to increase, and it could be a good thing. People are waiting longer to marry, but they are also staying married for longer and divorce rates have been declining for the last 20 years, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and an instructor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, suggests divorce rates have been dropping among those who are college-educated, and it may be due to the rising age when people marry. 

Coontz has written several books on marriage and family. In November 2010, Coontz wrote the article “Is Marriage becoming Obsolete?”, suggesting, “There are plenty of other ways to grow up, seek financial independence and meet one's needs for companionship and sex. So what might have seemed a ‘good enough’ reason to enter marriage in the past no longer seems sufficient to many people.” 

While marriage is no longer what it once was 50 years ago, “I do” is still a big part of the Millennials’ vocabulary. They are just taking a little longer to say it. 

“Marriage is still a big priority in my life and something I’m looking forward to. But there’s still so much I want to do,” Ross said. “I just don’t want us all to look back 10 years from now and have any regrets because we decided to jump into marriage. The right person will turn up when we are all ready and happy with our lifestyles. It’s just nice to know that there’s no rush.” 

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