Bootstraps-minded people are likely thinking at this point in this column: If you really needed a job, you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. But when lots and lots of millennials factor in that same reasoning and elect to put off marriage and parenthood in hopes of getting into a reasonably decent financial position beforehand, their individual choices apparently constitute a societal crisis.
Efforts to puzzle out why younger Americans might be putting off the traditional milestones of adulthood — most notably marriage and parenthood — make up a significant portion of the entries in the wildly popular millennial panic genre of commentary. Arguments that this dawdling could be a major problem for our generation, the ones above ours and the ones that follow practically constitute their own sub-industry. A recent specimen found one writer lamenting that, because of millennial debt, pride and insouciance, “Marriage has taken a serious nosedive, and we are all worse off as a result.”
Millennial reluctance to commit to the adult milestones of yesteryear is probably due in some part to culture; younger people now want more time to grow into themselves and achieve an independent identity before they enmesh themselves in the webs of marriage and parenthood.
But what most complaints about millennial delays miss is that even if there weren’t cultural reasons for putting off marriage and parenthood, millennials would still be acting reasonably if they decided to wait to start families: Thanks to student debt, a dearth of parental benefits and the instability induced by our labor market, settling down and having kids are far riskier propositions than they have to be. Fortunately, we can use policy to reduce the risks and make marriage and parenthood more attractive, accessible options for the many millennials who do feel emotionally ready — though financially unprepared — to pursue them.
With millennials bearing the heaviest debt load in history, it’s not surprising they’re not exactly thrilled about marriage, which involves thrusting financial burdens upon a partner. One way of reversing millennials’ debt conundrum would be to forgive student debt for those already underwater and to institute free college tuition for those younger millennials and Generation Z members who haven’t yet incurred the debt that could hobble their careers and personal choices later on. Various Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have already proposed such policies. Pundits concerned about delays in millennial marriage should be the first to advocate changes such as these.
Then there’s the issue of children. We know that having a child is one of the top reasons people fall into poverty — children, after all, come with lots of expenses but no income. There are several ways to counter this frustrating fact of life, including universal paid leave so that parents — especially early-career ones who have the least savings and the greatest need for a steady income — aren’t forced to choose between paychecks and parenthood; a child allowance to cushion the costs that come with a new family member; and universal health care to cover the extraordinary price of being pregnant, giving birth, and those early-childhood checkups and immunization appointments.
None of this would make marriage or childbirth easy; they never were, and they never will be. But the cultural pressures that once encouraged people to disregard those hardships have weakened. So if you have a genuine interest in seeing all the millennials who want to be married and raising kids forge ahead with their plans, the wisest thing to do would be to diminish the hurdles that prevent them from taking the next steps forward into adulthood. There are plenty of policy options on the table fit to do just that. Complaining about kids these days might be more satisfying than changing debt, workplace or insurance policies. But it wouldn’t be nearly as effective in getting millennials down the aisle and into the maternity ward.