Contrary to popular belief, marriage isn’t dead. It’s not even dying.
The institution is probably more respected and admired than ever before — just not in a way that encourages millennials to partake in it.
You can see this in national survey data, recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about Americans’ views of various family arrangements.
At first glance the report suggests that Americans may indeed be less devoted to the sacrosanctity of marriage — or at least that we’ve become more tolerant of once-stigmatized non-marital sexual behaviors . In 2002, for example, slightly more than 6 in 10 Americans said they thought it was okay for a young couple to live together without being married. By 2011-2013, the period of the most recent survey, the share had jumped to more than 7 in 10.
Similarly, the report finds that Americans have gotten more accepting of women who bear and raise children out of wedlock, of unmarried 18-year-old couples who decide to have sex and of same-sex couples who adopt children.
On these and other familial and procreative arrangements, Americans have become measurably more liberal. But on one crucial measure, they have become much more conservative.
That measure is divorce.
Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.” In 2002, about half of Americans disagreed. Within a decade, the share had risen to more than 60 percent. In the most recent data, younger Americans — a cohort with the lowest marriage rates on record, mind you — were especially likely to perceive divorce as an unacceptable response to marital strain.
How is it possible that Americans are simultaneously getting more traditional about marital commitment and less traditional about non-marital relations? How did we become more judgmental of divorce and less judgmental of people who “live in sin” or have children out of wedlock?
The answer lies in our evolving views of marriage itself.
Earlier generations saw marriage as a sort of foundational milestone, laid relatively early in life, that would help couples go on to achieve familial and financial stability. Today, it is seen more as a crowning achievement, appropriate and available only after lots of other boxes are ticked off first. And this brass ring ought to be indestructible by the time it graces your left hand.
Marriage has, in other words, gone from being a cornerstone achievement to a capstone one.
Marriage rates may have plummeted in recent decades, but the vast majority of never-married millennials still say they aspire to get hitched someday. They just want to get their ducks in a row first — and my, are those ducks multiplying. A survey from last fall found that young Americans believe they should wait to marry until they have a stable job, have reduced their debt levels or accumulated savings, have a college degree, have successfully cohabitated with their future spouse, have had previous serious relationships and even own their home.
We millennials still want our happily-ever-afters, but with an emphasis on the after.
Meanwhile, many of those intermediate milestones we now see as connubial preconditions have moved further out of reach. Mounting student loan debt, falling youth homeownership rates and stagnant or declining job opportunities are disqualifying many young Americans from this apparently elite institution, or at least turning them into less eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
It is the layering of these two concurrent forces — the idealization of marriage, plus the declining marriageability (real or perceived) of so many of its would-be participants — that has ground down marriage rates, especially for lower-skilled Americans. And so young people put off marriage, though not necessarily the other milestones that used to almost exclusively follow marriage (such as childbearing).
It’s unclear why marriage has been elevated to such a high pedestal. Perhaps it’s the traumatic legacy of earlier decades of high divorce rates, which make today’s young people fear creating their own broken homes.
Or perhaps it’s the increasing association of marriage with wealthier, better-educated people. Elites have also adopted the capstone view of marriage and actually found it useful for forming more stable, successful, enduring unions.
So keep this in mind if you ever feel the temptation to urge some broke young couple to hurry up and get hitched already: Chances are they’re dragging their feet not because they don’t take marriage seriously but because they do.