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Is Marriage “Just a Piece of Paper” Today?

Early marriage today is as common as an honest politician in Chicago

Marriage has taken a hit. A growing number of Americans today still revere marriage, but they just don't think it's as necessary as it once was, according to a TIME Magazine cover story in November.

"What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children - yet marriage remains revered and desired."

Marriage--one of society's fundamental institutions--has changed radically in a very short time. Many more are not marrying at all, but are living together or remaining single. More women have children on their own, and for the first time, men benefit more financially from marriage than women. Let that one sink in for a moment.

At the vanguard of this shifting view are young adults. "It's just a piece of paper," we often heard in our interviews with young people. "I don't need a piece of paper to tell me my relationship matters."

Young adults are waiting much longer to marry than ever before. In 1960, two-thirds of 20-somethings were married; in 2008 just 26% were. And the decline is picking up steam. In 2000, 55.1% of young adults aged 25 to 34 were married. By 2009, that had dropped to 44.9%, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Marriage has declined for many reasons-- rising levels of education for women, the demise of the shotgun wedding, better contraception, living together has become more acceptable, and divorce has made this generation more skittish. In addition--and this is what TIME means when it says we revere marriage more-- marriage has become a capstone event at the end of a long line of accomplishments. Marriage is on a pedestal, the prize that awaits after years of getting ready to commit.

It struck me how fundamentally marriage has changed in the eyes of young adults when we ran into Julie in our interviews for "Not Quite Adults." Julie was 24 and had been married already for several years. She and her husband had met in high school, married immediately after graduation and before he joined the Navy. They moved across country to a Navy base, and Julie set up housekeeping alone, while her husband was at sea for long stretches. She soon had a baby, and was working part-time as well. They bought a house, and commenced life as a family, all by age 24.

Twenty years ago, this story would not have stood out as it did. Back then, Julie's marriage was standard issue. But it quickly became clear that this path today is about as common as an honest politician in Chicago.

The much more common story was the story of John and his girlfriend Renee.

John, now 29, met his current girlfriend when he was 19. They worked side by side at the local Dairy Queen, although at the time both were in different relationships. The job exposed their warts as well as their good qualities.

"Working together so close you really got to know each other really well, before even dating, which was really nice," he said. In his mind, the success of their relationship stems largely from the fact that they were friends first and they were able to "build our relationship off that." They have been officially dating for five years now, and although they do plan to marry in the future, neither is in a huge rush.

Unlike Steve and Julie, John and Renee were becoming their own persons, developing their own lives as singles, not as a couple. They'd both finished master's degrees. John was moving up in the ranks of his job, and had just bought a house. Renee had her own condo and a job as well. It's his and hers hand towels without the joint bathroom. They were clearly quite close, and he talked freely about their relationship in ways his father never would have.

"There's nothing I can't say to her," he said. "So, you know, you are truly each other's best friend. You mean the most to each other. And that's what I like the best. I'm not depending on my brother to be my best friend, or my friend from high school to be my best friend. I know that the person I'm with will always be my best friend. And that's, I think, what should mean most in any relationship."

He is not alone. Nine in ten singles in the National Marriage Project's annual "State of Our Union" survey agree that "when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost."

But, this quest for a best friend, and getting one's personal ducks in a row-buying the condo, getting the degree, settling into a career-often means that the twenties are spent searching and assessing, and the march down the aisle slows to a crawl. It gets more complicated to boot because the gender roles are all up for grabs. While we like to think of ourselves as way beyond any confusion over these roles, I don't think we're there yet.

In many respects, this is the first generation to live fully under a set of "new rules" of family life. Sure the Boomers started the ball rolling, but those who lived together or bought their own homes first or wanted to be well into a settled career first were still outliers, not the norm. But now, for the first time, these patterns dominate, and there's a lot of choices along the way, with no guidebook to carry along on the trip.

So the question arises: Are young adults overwhelmed by the number of options? Or as sociologist Maria Kefalas put it so succinctly: overwhelmed by choices and unburdened by social expectations? It's a question worth pondering.

Normally when something changes as marriage has, we shrug and move on, comfortable in the new set of choices and ways of doing things. But in this case, the decline in marriage is playing out differently depending on where one falls along the economic spectrum. And the result is diverging destinies that can have very long-term consequences.

On the lower end of the education and income scale, marriage is revered just as much--and in fact perhaps more. To lower-income women, marriage is held high on a pedestal and delayed until it can be done right, with the big wedding and the white picket fence to follow. And that means financial security comes first.

And of course, for them, getting those ducks in a row can take a long, long time in an economy shaped increasingly like a barbell, with high-paying knowledge economy jobs on one end, and low-paying service sector jobs on the other. It's not surprising then that the decline in marriage is most pronounced among those with the least education (just a high school degree or less), down a full 10 percentage points in just ten years, according to a recent Population Reference Bureau report. For those with at least a bachelor's degree, the share married declined only 4 percentage points.

Yet this group does not delay childbearing. Some might wonder why a woman would have a child on one small income, alone, but as the women in Philadelphia told Maria Kefalas and Kathy Edin in their book, "Promises I Can Keep," "it's not like I'm ever going to make scads of money, so why wait to have children?" Children are a gift, and a central part of their life, the researchers found. Waiting until their finances are in order will be a long wait.

And here begins the problem. Although young adults may think that their love doesn't need the state to sanction it, marriage does confer benefits, especially to children. In fact, the research is rarely as definitive as it is about the benefits of two parents in a harmonious relationship to children's development. Single mothers, for example, are at hight risk for poverty, and poverty in childhood has long-lasting effects. A recent issue of The Future of Children: Fragile Families documents the travails that greet single mothers and their children as they try to carve out a life on their own.

As Lauren Moore, on Future of Children's blog, writes:

"Simply put, stable, two-parent homes have greater monetary and emotional resources to support their children's development. And in the United States, marriage [not living together] has the greatest chance of achieving relationship stability which leads to stability for children."

Whether living together without marrying will confer these same benefits is still unknown, since in this country at least, cohabiting couples tend to be short relationships that either end altogether or "convert" to marriage after four or five years on average. Among low-income couples, far more end altogether than convert to marriage.

The decline of marriage is not likely to reverse any time soon. And in many respects, this generation is doing it right--going slow, sowing wild oats, building a solid foundation, getting "set" and looking carefully for a soulmate. Some might nitpick and say that they could end up waiting too long, and of course that's a concern.

But the far greater concern is with young people who feel that they can never marry, or that marriage is a far-off dream "some day." This growing group also hopes to find a soulmate. They also want to get their ducks in a row. But their path to security is a much longer one, if it ever comes. They do not face the existential problem of too many choices. They have too few.


About the Author

Barbara Ray

Barbara Ray is the coauthor of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for All of Us (Delacorte, Jan. 2011).