They know it isn’t a piece of paper that binds a family together.
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.
When that little rhyme—rigidly prescriptive or whimsical, depending on one’s perspective—made the rounds in the 1960s and ’70s, it felt like a clarion call to a life fulfilled. Its sentiment was good enough for us Baby Boomers, and maybe even Generation X.
Back then, by and large, both genders embraced matrimony. Most women welcomed maternity.
But for today’s young people fresh out of high school, college, or a mind-numbingly expensive master’s program, the story’s simply not the same. A recent Pew Research Center poll measuring Americans’ attitudes toward marriage and kids elicited a remarkably lukewarm response from those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.
The poll found that while 53% of folks age 55 to 64 (the Boomers) believe “society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority,” only 29% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 35% of 25- to 34-year-olds feel the same way.
Millennials are a smart, thoughtful bunch. They know their life-choice options include economic and existential opportunities (and yes, hardships) unknown to those who came of age in the mid-20th century. Thus, they’ve developed a broader, less myopic worldview than their predecessors.
It’s not that they don’t want to settle down and have kids; they’re just more comfortable putting those likely eventualities off.
“There’s pressure from my parents to follow their trajectory: get married, have kids, make your family your passion,” says one newly-minted 22-year-old university graduate. “But I’m interested in following my career passion, and I can’t imagine throwing that away right now for a societal expectation.”
Her sagacity is not lost on my own daughters, ages 28 and 25, who also seem to have hit the “pause” button in terms of their timeline for marriage and family. One just completed a master’s degree in public health administration and dreams of operating a care center for dementia patients, among other possible pursuits. The other is a first-grade teacher at a Waldorf-inspired charter school and plans to enter a master of arts in teaching program in 2015.
While both are cohabitating with equally ambitious men three and four years their senior and have expressed a desire to marry and raise children in the future, neither is in a hurry to rush off to the county courthouse or say “I do” in a field filled with wildflowers. Someday is soon enough for them, at least for now.
As a group, this foursome aligns squarely with the 61 to 69% of Millennials who think society is “just as well off” (note the slight nuance of the poll’s secondary question) if people pursue other priorities besides marriage and family. They aren’t concerned that communities will come unraveled if the median age for wedlock and onesies creeps up a few notches.
And if these couples decide to pull a Goldie and Kurt—eschewing wedding vows altogether—their relational success rate will probably be at least as promising as that of their parents, half of whose marriages ended in divorce. After all, institutional religion aside, it isn’t a piece of paper that binds a family together. It’s the wisdom, humor, contentment, and devotion that comes from Millennial-won maturity—or so my daughters would say.
They’d be right.
Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two community newspapers, the Hillsboro Tribune and the Forest Grove News-Times. Her work has most recently been published in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (Forest Avenue Press), the Riveter Magazine, runnersworld.com, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives in St. Helens, Oregon.