A recent Johns Hopkins study found that 57 percent of women aged 26 to 31 had at least one child outside of marriage, numbers that signal a decline in the importance of marriage among Millennials when it comes to raising a family. Has the dreaded decline of the nuclear family finally hit its “no turning back” point?
A little more insight from the research: Of the women with children born outside marriage, 63 percent had no college education. Of all the mothers with children outside marriage, 26 percent were cohabitating with the fathers but 31 percent were unattached.
Double selfie, from my single parenting days
Now before we decide to declare marriage dead, and bemoan our generation’s lack of “family values,” let’s take a step back and look at the factors that play into these findings (which are certainly not all-inclusive). Nearly half of all Millennials grew up in homes with divorced parents — parents who may have hung around during unhappy times to simply avoid divorce or because they thought things would just get better. For the parents who eventually divorced, their Millennial children likely saw the ugly side of the process, along with the eventual return to happiness on the other side.
For Millennials who experienced the dissolution of their own parents’ unions, perhaps it makes sense to tread lightly when it comes to tying the knot and avoid the messiness of divorce altogether. Even a shared child may not be reason enough to take the plunge — in fact, it may be the worst possible reason because it forces the marriage, instead of allowing the decision to happen organically. I wrote a post for the Kassi Project a few months ago addressed to single parents, with advice based on my own experience in their shoes. In it, I wrote that committing to another person because you share a child (and only because of that) was a terrible idea. I don’t think what I said was ground-breaking. By and large, Millennials agree with me. The birth of a child no longer automatically signals wedding bells, and overall I think this is a refreshing shift because it leads to stronger marriages (with or without the other parent) later on.
Millennials also do not view marriage as a rite of passage when it comes to adulthood. Graduating high school, going to college, getting that first job, landing that first apartment — these are all markers of a grown up, not getting married. In fact, people who choose to get married before the age of 25 are usually considered “too young,” by their peers AND their parents. The average age for American women to get married is now 27, and for men it is 29 — that’s up from 23 and 26 in 1990. The days of getting married directly out of high school (in 1960, the average American female got married at 20 and males at 22) are long gone for the majority of Millennials and in my opinion, it’s a welcome thing. Waiting to get married allows for stronger friendships, development of individuality and yes, “shopping around” for the right eventual mate.
Here’s the thing about waiting to get married though: Millennials aren’t waiting to have sex. There are exceptions, of course. But a Kinsey Institute study found that single people ages 18 to 29 have sex an average of 77 times every year. Marriage may not be a priority, but for young, unattached Millennials, sexual relationships (casual or otherwise) are. The result? Babies, sometimes.
Then there is the entire issue of commitment in general – and Millennials aren’t great at it. In an interview I did with sexual researcher Alex Allman (for another post, forthcoming), he told me that Millennials are emotional avoidants when it comes to commitment.
“Divorce rates are high and Millennials are fed up with monogamy. Think about it — if their toaster breaks, they buy a new one. Their parents and grandparents didn’t do that. It is a generational. psychological shift,” he said. “There is an enormous amount of fear of putting in the work because it’s emotionally scary to go through the ups and downs with another human. Effort is required and Millennials just don’t want to make that effort.”
Wow. I wasn’t sure if I should feel offended (did he really just call me lazy?) or if my mind should be blown at this insight. Are Millennials highly evolved when it comes to their views on marriage, or are they just taking the easy way out? And, perhaps an even more insightful question, if we are taking the easy way out — is that a bad thing?
What will this trend in the majority of children being born outside of marriages really mean for the kids of Millennials? Will they forsake marriage altogether — or will we see a return to the institution as a result?