Generational Shifts in Attitudes toward Marriage

Alan Brady is a writer who uses personal experience as inspiration to write about family, the environment, and business practices. He currently writes for attorneys.com which locates local child custody lawyers.

In 2005 a survey was done to determine what views are held by members of Generation Y in regards to marriage and traditional family life. Generation Y is defined differently depending on where you look, but for this article it will be defined as people born between 1981 and 2000. The survey found that 59% of respondents feel that living together, or cohabitating as a couple is an acceptable lifestyle choice, regardless of whether or not children are involved or marriage is the ultimate outcome. Only half felt that marriage is a particularly important social institution.

For someone born into the Baby Boomer or early X generations, this perspective is often completely unfamiliar or even bizarre. Cohabitation doesn’t seem nearly as scandalous as The Greatest Generation found it, but for older Americans the end goal for any relationship is still understood to be marriage. For Generation Y and even those on the younger end of Generation X, the phrase “it’s just a piece of paper” is tossed around as an argument against the importance of marriage. Children are less and less a motivation for marriage, and a study done by the Pew Research Center found that the number of children being born to unmarried women has gone up from 28% to 41% in the last twenty years.

When questioning what influenced these drastic shifts in social mores, the behavior of previous generations must be taken into account. Data collected from 1970 revealed that more than half of all marriages ended in divorce. Even though those numbers have gone down, the idea has stuck in the cultural consciousness, quoted blindly in television and movies, in books and online without stop. In the 80s and 90s, when the young Gen X and Generation Y kids were growing up, it was the most recent data available, and whether or not it remained accurate, it certainly felt that way to them. The children in a classroom whose parents weren’t divorced were often in the minority, and the question ‘are your parents still married?’ was eventually asked less often than ‘do you live with your mom, or your dad?’

For the generation of kids raised in what used to be called ‘broken homes,’ there is often a feeling of disdain for the institution that so gloriously failed their parents. Having experienced the dissolution of their own families as children, these adults now feel a responsibility not to create another generation of latchkey kids, and will often choose single-parenthood over an uncertain marriage. Of course, no marriage can ever be guaranteed, but living together for an extended period of time before they get married lets them feel like they know what they’re getting into, which may account in part for the rise in cohabitation. In 1960 there were approximately 430,000 unmarried couples in the Unites States living together; today that number is closer to 7.5 million.

The debate around gay marriage in this country has raged for decades, but never before has there been a generation who so consistently support it, although they seem somewhat ambivalent about the idea of getting married themselves. According to recent polling data from The Washington Post and ABC News, 81% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that homosexual couples should be allowed to legally marry, in contrast to the 44-57% of people in previously polled generations. The rate of change in those numbers is shocking, and they seem to imply a certain amount of inevitability. Even ten years ago, the conversation centered on the possibility of civil unions or domestic partnerships, but this generation view that as a new version of ‘separate but equal,’ and they will have none of it.

What has been more damaging to the perception of the institution itself has been the battle over same-sex marriage. This generation grew up listening to incredibly vitriolic recriminations against the ‘gay culture’ and the violent defense of ‘the sanctity of marriage,’ while every couple of years or so one of the loudest voices would be silenced by a scandal involving an undercover male officer, underage pages, or the services found at RentBoy.com. The hypocrisy demonstrated by these behaviors has to an extent tainted the very concept of marriage, and for many members of Generation Y, the exclusion of same-sex couples makes it a discriminatory institution, and one they want no part of.

The primary benefits of marriage have generally come from two very important spheres of life: the religious and the economic. While most religions still value marriage as the linchpin of the family, the stigma and severity of judgment against those who don’t get married, who get divorced, or who have long-term relationships and children outside of wedlock has to a large extent been weakened. For the first time in American history, the number of people who say they either don’t believe or are unaffiliated with any religious tradition has risen to 16%, and when asked 46% of people between 18 and 25 years old say they do not regularly engage in religious ritual. This means that for many of them marriage is no longer a moral issue. Even the economic benefits are inconsistent, as many low income Americans have discovered that by marrying and combining their incomes they will lose access to desperately needed services, which amounts to a disincentive or even a hurdle to marriage.

Generation Y is one of the most college educated groups in history, but after the crash and Great Recession of 2008 they graduated to find themselves in line for entry level positions behind scores of recently laid off veterans in their fields. With mountains of student loan debt and only minimum wage jobs to support themselves, many of these young people were forced to move back into their parents’ homes for extended periods of time. While this is and has always been a step on the path to financial independence, it has further delayed marriage and kids for millions of young adults. Few people think seriously about getting married while living in their mother’s basement, after all.

These data seem to be creating a misconception that Generation Y is a generation afraid of commitment, distrusting of each other, and generally uninterested in forming emotional connections. Although they may discuss marriage in more practical terms than their parents or grandparents did, there is an element of the romantic in their perspective. They see relationships as partnerships, not hierarchies, which is a lesson that would have benefited many of those divorced Gen X couples, and their reticence about marriage seems to stem from a belief that it should be more about love and respect than tradition or religion.