Modern romance: Gen-Y is late to the wedding, but wants marriage

Gen-Y is is rewriting modern romance as the path to marriage gets longer but more certain: Young people want more certainty before the wedding.

Ann Hermes photo
This is part of the cover story package for the Feb. 13, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.
A Monitor/TIPP poll of Gen-Y on romantic inclinations.

When Amy Monticello and Jason Tucker got married, it wasn't the passionate act of two people who'd fallen madly in love. It was a far less romantic mix of love, legal protections, and health insurance. They met in graduate school, dated for a while, and began staying over at each other's apartments.

"We were spending so much time together it just seemed silly to pay two rents," says Ms. Monticello. So the two moved in together in 2006, but she says she was wary: "I think I saw living together as a test run, in a way."

Four years later Monticello, age 29, and Mr. Tucker, 30 – both writers who teach at Ithaca Col­lege, in Ithaca, N.Y. – chose to marry because it gave their relationship legal certainty and other benefits, like next-of-kin status, community property protection, and the ability to share health insurance.

Much of Monticello's ambivalence about marriage, she says, is the result of her childhood in the 1980s and '90s spent watching her parents and their friends contribute to the highest divorce rates in US history.

That ambivalence is also seen in the whole new world of courtship created by her generation – Millennials or Generation Y generally includes those born between 1980 and 2000. This is the first generation to come of age with social media, instant – even constant – Internet and phone connection, and relaxed pressures to marry early. It is responsible for terms like "hooking up" (nonrelationships known to previous generations as one-night stands) and "friends with benefits" (a sexual relationship without emotional involvement).

While Millennial courtship rituals are distinctly different from those of previous generations, say those who study the scene, survey after survey indicates that Millennials do want to be married, they do want the house in the suburbs and the kids.

But they also want to be careful – they are postponing marriage longer than any generation before them.

"Millennials believe in marriage and lifelong commitment but are also more relaxed about sex, dating, and living together" than their Generation X and boomer parents, says Pamela Smock, a professor of sociology and director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

They don't wait for the phone to ring

Today, just 20 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with nearly 60 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. When Xers were the same age, 30 percent were married; for boomers it was more than 40 percent.

Generational theorists say that Gen-Y is a "civic generation," similar to the GI generation, which was raised in the Great Depression and served in World War II. Civic generations are generally more group-oriented than other generations and worry about being financially stable because they come of age during difficult economic times or war, says Mike Hais, a market researcher, consultant, and coauthor with Morley Winograd of "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America." And the average age for marriage in the GI generation was higher than for the two generations that followed.

"Civic generations just don't feel they are necessarily ready to get married as soon as other generations do," says Mr. Hais.

Civic generations also don't wait around for the phone to ring. Being "group oriented" means they get support from an entire community of friends and family, not just one significant other. That's easy to do when social circles are large and often limitless thanks to Facebook, Google+, and Twitter; and when texting and mobile apps allow people to tell their world instantly where they are having dinner, shopping, or seeing a movie. If they want companionship or support, it's at the other end of their laptop or smart phone.

Millennials' caution toward commitment mirrors their caution toward life generally, probably the result of protective parents (who carefully coached and tutored them through childhood), growing up in the age of terrorism, living through the Great Recession, and being exposed to a media culture focused on danger. A Pew survey captured what it calls the generation's "wary eye on human nature": Two-thirds say, "You can't be too careful" when dealing with other people.

The research also shows that this generation values children, family, lifelong commitment, and, yes – despite trepidation – marriage. In fact, their top two priorities in that Pew study are "being a good parent" and "having a successful marriage."

Despite those traditional values, Gen-Y is also liberated in many ways, having come of age 40 years after the sexual revolution, which destigmatized premarital sex. Add to that the advancement of women in the labor force and better birth control technologies and you have options for nontraditional courtship, says Ms. Smock.

Women aren't looking for financial stability through marriage the way they did in the past, and today they are just as concerned about their careers as men. In fact, Millennials may be the first female-dominated generation in American history, says Hais, with women in many respects outachieving men. He cites data estimating that 60 percent of those receiving bachelor's degrees and 56 percent of those receiving doctorates in 2016 will be women.

But being financially self-sufficient doesn't mean young women never want to marry or have children, it simply delays the need to do so. And it means Gen-Y can write its own relationship and life script, says Smock. "They feel free to conduct their relationships the way they want to."

What does six dates mean? Is it serious?

Taylor Purcelli, a 22-year-old college student in Michigan, says she has been asked out on a real date exactly once.

"Guys don't ask women out anymore, like a dinner-and-a-movie kind of thing. It's more, 'Do you want to hang out?' and you go to his place or you hang out with a whole group of people. It's not a real formal date. That rarely happens," she says. "When I meet guys, it's usually through friends or friends of friends."

Most men Ms. Purcelli meets now aren't looking for a committed relationship. Forget about marriage, she says, they don't even want a boyfriend/girlfriend commitment. "I have gotten frustrated with that, but then I remember I'm only 22. I have a while."

Dating has always been a complicated dance, but it's more hazy today because the rules and courtship rituals that existed for decades aren't in place anymore. Among the many changes in the dating landscape are "stayovers" and "hooking up" – the institutionalization, essentially, of the one-night stand.

The lines between physical intimacy and relationships are very blurry for Gen-Y, says Kathleen Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology at LaSalle University in Philadelphia and author of "Hooking Up," which compared the dating habits of college students with those of people in their late 20s.

"A few decades ago, there would have been a clear distinction between a one-night thing and the start of a relationship, whereas now you hook up, something physical happens, and it's a roll of the dice," says Ms. Bogle. "And no one verbalizes what's happening."

Dorna Lange, a single 27-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., says in her early 20s she felt disgusted by the "whole game of dating." She describes the game this way: "[H]e couldn't tell me how much he liked me. And if I revealed my feelings, I felt like I was making myself less attractive to him."

Similar game-playing was going on when Hannah Seligson, now 29 and married, was dating in New York City in her 20s. She says she spent half her time just trying to define relationships.

"What does six dates mean? Is it serious? Do we change our relationship status on Facebook? We have all this freedom, and it's liberating, but it's also maddening," says Ms. Seligson, the author of "A Little Bit Married," a book about 20-somethings and their feelings about dating and marriage and the forthcoming "Mission: Adulthood," also about her generation of 20-somethings.

Compare this dating ambiguity to dating in previous generations, which had more defined courtship rituals: For example, the man asks the woman out on a date, then out a few more times, then they become – very clearly and exclusively – boyfriend and girlfriend. Eventually, they get engaged.

"In previous generations there was this idea that you transition to adulthood in this way. We've lost that," says Bogle. "There's this expectation with Gen-Y that they will stretch that process out and won't get married until later. It's the idea they have a right, in their 20s, to see what's out there."

The nonrelationship

These nonrelationships exist now because sex in dating has become divorced from a committed relationship. We live in a culture that expects men and women to be sexually active, in or out of a relationship, and it's strange if they aren't, says Bogle.

Indeed, in a 2007 University of Denver study of about 800 20-to-30-year-olds in an opposite-sex relationship of two months or longer, 93 percent had been sexually active at the time they were interviewed.

Galena K. Rhoades, a senior researcher for the university's Center for Marital and Family Studies, has been following this group of young people for four years, as part of an ongoing study of relationship habits.

"About half of them say that in their current relationship they had sex with the person before they had a relationship with them," says Ms. Rhoades. "That's a pretty big change from previous generations, when if you slept with someone, it was usually the start of a relationship."

Laura Leischner, a single 25-year-old living in Harrisonburg, Va., describes her current situation as "occasionally a physical relationship with someone, but without a commitment or a relationship. I can still be friends with the man. There's no weird feelings afterwards. I don't owe him anything or he me, other than the friendship we had before. And this is the way it is for a lot of my friends." Although marriage is a part of the future Ms. Leischner envisions for herself, she feels she hasn't dated enough yet to think about marrying someone.

Yet all this liberation hasn't eliminated the old double standard for women; there is still a stigma for those who have too many partners or are always looking for a hookup, says Bogle. Whereas for men, hooking up and friends with benefits simply means "they have a person that likes them, is attracted to them, and that they can be physical with, but it doesn't prevent them from finding other people. It's also safer to have one partner," she says.

To meet eyes with a stranger: weird

As for how Millennials find people to date, Rhoades and her colleagues found there is a lot of online dating after college. But while in college, people meet mostly through friends or at clubs or parties. But even in those places, they meet through a group of friends and acquaintances. Millennials are far less likely than those of previous generations to go where singles hang out or date someone they meet simply by chance.

"This generation is so socially connected to each other and the world because of technology that the idea of dating someone you meet on the bus while commuting to work seems pretty far afield. They want to be connected to the person they date in some social way," says Rhoades.

Kendall Younger, a 31-year-old veterinarian living in Sacramento, Calif., says, "When you meet by chance in person, you're very limited in how you're able to decide if you have anything in common with them." She has been dating online for five years and has met "far more decent guys online than I did in person because it's much easier to screen them."

Bogle teaches a class called Love, Marriage, and Parenting and says her students don't see the romance in having their eyes meet a stranger's across a crowded room. In fact, they think it's weird. "They felt it was far more normal to meet someone on the computer, rather than to meet a stranger that just happens to be in the same public space as you are," she says.

Strategy vs. romance

Millennial courtship involves an extra step between dating and marriage – living together, something that was far less common a generation ago.

"It's essentially a way to test-drive relationships," says Seligson, the dating-and-marriage author. Both she and her husband believe their living together before marriage was a key building block toward married life. "People date for a long time now before they get married, and I think these are relationships that would have culminated in marriage much sooner a generation ago," she says. "But today marriage is really [the end result of] exploration, of finding out who we are and what we want to do with our lives. People want to get their ducks in order, professionally and financially, before they get married."

That caution in commitment is connected to Millennials' very real fear of divorce.

Smock, the University of Michigan sociologist, says that in almost every interview she conducted with young adults, they cited the 1-in-2 divorce rate (although it is slightly lower now) of marriages that began in the 1970s and '80s. "Gen-Y is very aware that divorce may be right around the corner," she says. A 19-year-old woman she interviewed, who was not dating at the time, said she wanted to live together before getting married so she would know what to expect in the future.

"When I get married, I want it to happen one time, once," one 19-year-old responded, in Smock's survey. "That's it. I just want to do it one time. I don't want to be divorced and looking for another one and going through all that. I just want ... the perfect guy, and that's it."

Millennials even exhibit some ambivalence about living together. A new courtship phenomenon called stayovers was documented last July in a paper published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships titled " 'We're Not Living Together': Stayover Relationships Among College-Educated Emerging Adults."

Coauthors Tyler Jamison, a doctoral candidate in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and Prof. Lawrence Ganong interviewed 22 young adults involved in exclusive relationships. The study found that all stayed together several nights a week but hadn't moved in together. They weren't sharing house keys and didn't leave clothes or toothbrushes at their partner's homes.

That phenomenon, says Ms. Jamison, had never been documented before.

"We looked at the research on mate selection, dating, and cohabitation – the stayover just didn't exist," says Jamison. Ultimately, about 70 percent of those getting married today do wind up living together first, according to a 2009 national survey conducted by Rhoades and her colleagues at the Center for Marital and Family Studies.

"I've never been in a rush to get married, but I do support marriage. I think it's kind of a blessing," says Anna Fields, a 30-year-old writer and teacher living in Winston-Salem, N.C. The author of "Confessions of a Rebel Debutante" and "Chasing Meridian," a young adult novel coming out later this year, has been living with her boyfriend for four years. They also own a house together.

"Test-drive" and "rent-a-marriage" were terms that came up fairly often – especially among men – during the focus groups and in-depth interviews Smock conducted as part of her research into cohabitation.

Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Marriage-Go-Round," says that because Gen-Y grew up during the high-water mark of divorce, they have a strong desire not to experience what they either endured as kids or saw happening to families around them.

Andrew Schrage, single and 25, agrees. He is co-owner of the Chicago start-up Money Crashers Personal Finance, a financial education website. Men of his generation have a sense of "guardedness" about marriage, he says, "because they see the potential disastrous effects that divorce can have on one's personal, professional, and financial lives. I almost feel like marriage has become more of a strategic decision, when it used to be a much more emotional one."

But researchers say there's little risk of a return to a time when marriage was largely a business relationship, rather than a romantic endeavor.

"I think for this generation there's definitely the ideal of a romantic relationship," says Rhoades. "They do aspire to that but also feel the pressure to go about it in a practical way."

"I'm very pro-marriage. But I'm also very worried about divorce – it's one of my biggest concerns," says Maggie Ryan, a 20-year-old college student in Boston. She wants to get married before she's 30 because she wants children. "I'm from a huge family, and my parents have an ideal marriage," she says. They met in eighth grade and have been together ever since, and Ms. Ryan says they are still very much in love.

Brittany Young, a 19-year-old college student in Illinois, has been in a relationship for about a year. She grew up with a single mom yet strongly supports marriage, even though she says it's a long way off: "That's my No. 1 thing for the future. I want to have children after I'm married. It wouldn't be done in the correct manner otherwise."

Marriage redrawn

The median age for a first marriage is now the highest in US history, according to the US Census Bureau: For men it is 28.7 and for women it's 26.5.

Jamison believes the demographic shift is significant and has affected all aspects of Gen-Y courtship: "If you start having relationships at 16 or 17 and don't get married for a decade, that means people are interested in being in relationships that aren't necessarily directed towards marriage. That's a major shift."

Postponing marriage until it can be done well is a story of economics as much as it is fear of divorce, says Professor Cherlin. College graduates take longer to marry because they are investing in school and careers – to give them a sound financial footing as adults – and eventually most of them will marry, he says.

That's not the case for high school graduates who don't go to college.

"What's happened to our economy is that the kinds of jobs that used to sustain a working-class marriage have disappeared, like manufacturing jobs," says Cherlin. "Even young people that have found work aren't making as much as their parents did, so they are less likely to marry than college-educated people." Marriage – and the requisite house, decent schools, reliable car – is still seen as the gold standard for having a family, but less-educated young adults don't feel they can live up to that standard, so they postpone marriage until they can.

Monticello, whose marriage was as much practical as romantic, says she, her husband, and their group of friends don't view marriage as a "central organizing principle of society anymore" and are open to different kinds of families, including those where children are born to couples that aren't married.

In fact, Monticello's first book, an essay collection titled "Close Quarters," coming out this month, was inspired by how her "parents' divorce worked better than some marriages." She says that after the divorce, they "let their love for each other evolve into what I've always imagined a long marriage would become – a deep friendship that has accommodated change."

A record 41 percent of children born today are born to unmarried women, according to the Pew Research Center; in 1990, that number was 28 percent. Cherlin says demographers attribute most of that increase over the past few years to women living with the fathers of their children.

Millennials want to do better at marriage and parenting than they perceive their parents did. That's why they're taking their time, says Seligson, who spent a lot of time parsing what six dates might mean back in her New York City dating days; they want to get the commitment part right.

"If you look at the polling on Gen-Y," she says, "we're pretty optimistic. I think because we are a generation raised with technology, we feel lots of things are possible. There are a lot of choices now. We don't have to do it the way our parents did."

That feeling of freedom to postpone or choose an alternative to marriage appears to be more common among Yers in big cities than in small towns and small cities, perhaps because of small-town social mores, stronger family ties, or religious beliefs.

Jamison says the trend toward living together first and delaying marriage is generally stonger in bigger cities: "There's a social context in big cities where people feel they need to be very careful about marriage."

Marriage models needed

Despite all their caution, alternative living arrangements, and fears of divorce, Millennials seem to invest hope in a happily-ever-after that includes marriage and children. While 63 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in a TIPP poll for the Monitor in January said they believe most marriages are not happy, 77 percent want to marry before having children and 80 percent said they believe that marriage makes a relationship stronger.

"Marriage as a goal or an idea, everyone still buys into that," says Cherlin. "But Gen-Y buys into it later."

Rhoades at the Center for Marital and Family Studies says Millennials' caution about marriage comes from a "really good place. What's sad is that kids growing up in homes with bad marriages and divorce want to do it right, but we don't have a great model for that."

Ken O'Doran, a 29-year-old student in Illinois who was married relatively young – at 23 – and divorced a few months ago, says he's actually very supportive of marriage as an institution.

"A lot of people assume my generation is against marriage, that we're very casual about commitment and sex," he says. "But the vast majority of us are interested in long-term monogamy and the support of a long-term relationship. We need that.

"The problem," he continues, "is that we haven't been shown how to have a successful marriage because everyone's parents are divorced. It's not that we don't want those relationships; we just haven't been shown how to do it right."

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