Hang out with a few Millennial women and it doesn’t take long for the discussion to turn to relationship woes. This isn’t particularly new or unique to this generation —I’ve spent the better part of half a century bitching about men, and I can’t say that my male cohorts have been tongue-tied themselves —but there are some things about the conversation nowadays that are new and noteworthy.
First is that the cultural view of and respect for marriage as an institution is in decline. That sounds incredibly counterintuitive given the initiative for gay marriage but it’s absolutely irrefutable. For the first time, barely half of Americans —a wee 51%—are married, according to a Pew Center research study published at the end of 2011. Most importantly, only 20% of young Americans ages 18-29 are married; when John F. Kennedy took office in 1960, some 59% were. The rate of new marriages actually dropped 5% between 2009 and 2010. Among adults 25-34, fewer than half (44%) were married in 2010; compared with 82% in 1960. The median age for marriage continues to rise: 26.5 years for women and 28.7 for men.
What this means, from a practical and worry-feeding point of view, is that most Millennials under the age of 35 will know more unmarried peers —in their social circles, in the workplace — than married ones. That certainly ups the ante.
Keep in mind that while, according to another Pew Center Study published in March 2011, only 30% of Millennials labeled having a good marriage as “one of the most important things in life,” a bit over 70% of them still want to get married at some time in their lives. For the moment, let’s leave aside the 25% who say that marriage isn’t for them, although they’re certainly likely to further amplify the trends if they don’t change their minds.
So, should Millennials be worried about being single forever or is this just a question of timing? Is the Millennial worry limited to women who, for reasons of fertility, are rightly sensitive to timing? Again, the Millennials aren’t the only people to worry about this. Those of you old enough may remember the 1986 Newsweek story—finally retracted twenty years later—that declared that a woman over forty was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married and that a thirty-five year-old woman had only a 5% change of snagging a mate. This became a meme before anyone called things “memes,” struck terror into every unmarried female heart, so much so that the late, great Nora Ephron actually made it a part of the dialogue in Sleepless in Seattle. Rosie O’Donnell’s character mentions the statistic, Meg Ryan’s character debunks it, and O’Donnell answers, “That’s right. It’s not true but it feels true.”
So does “doomed to be single” just “feel true” or are there reasons beyond the statistics to worry? I think so and so do many Millennials out there —just take a look at Thought Catalog and other sites, if you can’t bear watching another moment of Lena Dunham —so the possible reasons are worth looking at. Here they are in no particular order.
The Effect of the Hook-up Culture
The disappearance of dating from teenage and college life and the ubiquity of the hook-up culture on college campuses means that many young adults have no experience with an intimate and committed relationship, much less practice in working things through with a romantic partner. These are skills learned over time and many young adults, with just a number of variations on the hook-up theme under their belts, find themselves sadly unequipped to sit down one-on-one with a potential partner and actually talk and find out whether, sexual attraction aside, the other person really is someone he or she wants to spend time with.
It’s not just the lack of dating experience or casual sex that gets in the way; there’s a weird synergy between the hook-up culture and the dependence on digital communications. The combination of the two seems to exacerbate the bad effects of each on relationships. In her new book, The End of Sex, Donna Freitas notes that “the prioritizing of technology over in-person interactions…promotes the idea that in-person relationships are cumbersome and time-consuming —better to be dealt with online, or, even better, not at all.” She also notes that “the existence of the hook-up culture allows young women to put off relationships. Yet it doesn’t simply allow this; it fairly forbids the formation of long-term romantic attachments, something both genders complain about in private.”
I also think —in contrast to Hanna Rosin’s argument in The End of Men —that between the hook-up script and the paucity of men on college campuses, men graduate from college used to being in the driver’s seat. That, combined with everything else, doesn’t help matters either.
The Problem of Meeting People
Out of the bubble that is college and with the workplace off-limits —which is how many people in previous generations met—and the friend-of-a-friend thing full of potential conflict and drama, young adults end up meeting potential mates in bars, at concerts, and, of course, on-line. And while there are on-line success stories, they are few and far between. Some of this has to do with the lack of the communication skill set —you can’t text forever and then you’re stuck with the face-to-face meeting in the real world —but some of it has to do with the nature of online dating itself.
The Downside to Online Dating
While it’s absolutely true that online dating opens up the pool of potential mates, it’s not fully a positive development because it’s more like shopping than not and seems to reinforce some of the ways both the hook-up culture and digital communication reduce the possibility of real connection. In their analysis of online dating, Eli Finkel and his colleagues rightly point out how reviewing online profiles reduces people to two-dimensions —grocery-lists of abilities and interests — and how “these displays fail to capture the experiential aspects of social interactions that are essential to evaluating one’s compatibility with potential partners.” The whole process objectifies people, as well as relationships. What’s missing too is what Finkel et al. call the “gut level evaluation—momentary, affective reactions to each other.” Worse still, what you’ve read about someone —in his or her profile, in a text —may overshadow what you’re able to perceive when you finally meet the person.
In some ways, online dating is to traditional dating as friending someone on Facebook is to friendship in the real world — and has the same “as if” quality to it. What Finkel calls the “evaluative mindset” might be good for buying a car or a couch or even a pair of shoes, but falls short when it comes to choosing a long-term partner.
It won’t come as a surprise that just as most Millennials expect that they will make meaningful contributions to society through their work, they have equally high standards and expectations when it comes to marriage, as Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker describe in their book, Premarital Sex in America. According to their data, the vast majority of emerging adults —some 94% of them — want their partner to be, first and foremost, a “soul mate.” Regnerus and Uecker suggest that even though their parents’ marriages didn’t live up to these expectations (remember that almost half of Millennials are children of divorce), their own sense is that they should settle for nothing less. As they write, “…the bar for marriage is never lowered. It remains very high, higher than they are able to reach. For others, it’s simply higher than they are willing to reach.”
It’s hard to see how the Millennial generation’s emphasis on independence, self-fulfillment, and the wish-list of things they bring to the workplace and other interactions can easily be reconciled with the demands of marriage which, inevitably, require one or both parties to give up certain ground and negotiate. As Regernus and Uecker point out, the contemporary script about marriage seems to posit that individual goals should be met and achieved before marriage is entered into which is why people are marrying later. But what happens after that?
Supply, Demand, and Timing
In their book, Regnerus and Uecker list ten myths about sex and relationship; in the ninth position is the myth that “marriage can always wait.” They point out that in the new cultural script, “Marriage now serves emerging adults’ other interests and plans, rather than the other way around. It’s clearly no longer the principal institution of adult life, as families are considered additions (even accessories) to the unrivaled, unfettered individual. It’s hard even to imagine it differently.”
In and of itself, this is neither a good nor a bad thing; it all depends on what the individual wants. It’s probably a good thing that both women and men are prepared to be economically independent, acquire a set of skills, and follow their own ambitions. At the same time, waiting to marry until you’ve accomplished those goals won’t be without some consequences and, alas, as Regnerus and Uecker point out, the consequences of aging in the “marriage market” aren’t equal for both genders.
But this isn’t cause to worry; it’s a reason to take stock of what it is you want. And the Millennial generation can do exactly that.
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Finkel, Eli et al. “Online Dating: A Critical Anyalysis from the Perspective of Psychological Science.” http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/eli-finkel/documents/2012_Fi...
Freitas, Donna. The End of Sex: How the Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy. New York: Basic Books, 2013.
Regnerus, Mark and Jeremy Uecker. Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.