Millennial generation: What's love got to do with it?

Each generation approaches courtship and marriage differently. But even Generation Y, which is reticent about going to the altar, is looking for the same thing: a deep and fulfilling relationship.

Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/AP
Some of collector Sue Wilson’s nearly 100 wedding-cake toppers, Norfolk, Va.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a happily married man writing about courtship must be in need of a serious talking to. Nothing so lacks credibility, especially with younger  readers. Oh, sure, he may on occasion text his wife a sweet nothing using “r” as a verb to show how with-it he is. He may throw caution to the wind and attempt to dance “the robot” at a nephew’s wedding. But he almost always will put air quotes around such not-really-modern-anymore fads to signal his actual distance from them.

For those reasons and more, it is probably best for me to send you directly to Eilene Zimmerman's fascinating and thorough exploration of modern dating. 

Depending on your vintage and values, your view of 2012 courtship may range from quiet approval to mild alarm. There is, for instance, a definite standoffishness about marriage in the Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y, meaning those born in the 1980s and early ’90s). But even if young people are waiting longer before saying their vows than any previous generation, they aren’t necessarily anti-marriage. What they most want, it appears, is to get marriage right.

“They’ve seen a lot of divorce in their parents’ generation,” Eilene told me the other day. “They’ve been through difficult holidays. But they’re really into family and marriage. They actually want to move to the suburbs and raise a family one day – just not now.”

Many have struggled through a bleak job market while carrying big college debt, so they are naturally cautious. Even the dreaded subject of sex is not what you may think in an age of ubiquitous contraception and noncommittal “hookups”:  Despite a casual attitude toward intimacy, risky behavior is not something this well-warned generation embraces. In some ways, says Eilene, Gen-Y is like the famed GI generation that fought in World War II and built the postwar world. By midcentury, in other words, this may be a fairly conservative cohort.

Eilene is an Gen-Xer. I’m a baby boomer. Talking about generations is unavoidable in trying to understand society. The drawback, of course, is that as with every other way humans categorize themselves – race, gender, religion, class – there are tremendous variations within the categories. Music, dress, slang, and hairstyles may characterize an age group, but those are superficialities. Individuals within Gen-Y are carving out distinct paths when it comes to tricky issues like intimate relations. That was true even of us boomers, not all of whom went to San Francisco with flowers in our hair.

In the not too distant future, Millennials themselves may wonder about the dating scene for the next demographic cohort, Generation Z (aka, Digital Natives). They, too, will have to use air quotes when it comes to current mores.

Society is a large and interesting blend of ages, communities, families, and individuals. But when it comes to affairs of the heart, most people are looking for the same thing: deep and abiding commitment. The StoryCorps project has assembled a collection of long-running love stories in a book titled “All There Is.” The collection echoes the testimonials from elderly couples that were sprinkled throughout the 1989 date movie “When Harry Met Sally” – how we met, what we mean to each other, the relationship two people build throughout a lifetime. One of the "All There Is" couples mentioned six nice things that one couple learned to say to each other throughout their marriage: You look great. Can I help? Let’s eat out. I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.

From neolithic times to the digital age, those have been words to live by. 

So, Honey, if u r reading this, u look great. Happy Valentine’s Day. Let’s eat out tonight. I promise not to dance the robot.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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