It might be the season of love, but most people our age aren’t exactly hearing the chime of wedding bells now — or any time soon for that matter.
The ages at which men and women are getting married are higher than they’ve ever been, and it all has to do with shifting cultural attitudes and ideas toward the institution. So what exactly do younger generations think of marriage? History professor Dr. Sylvia Schafer sheds some light on how marriage has changed and is currently changing.
Marriage today is certainly unlike how humans have known the institution for most of our history. Only a few hundred years ago, marriages were still seen as alliances for power or survival, according to Schafer. Then — some time in the recent past, historians aren’t sure exactly when — people began to conceive of marriage as the search for a life companion, for one’s best friend.
And even this idea has been enhanced by thought developed during the sexual revolution. As people in the ‘70s began to look at life as a sort of cultivation of self, they began to demand more of their life partners, seeking not only companions but someone who would help them grow as well.
“And I think the idea also … is that to be married is to take deep personal satisfaction in marriage, is to find it gratifying, enriching, that marriage is supposed to be — and love — and marriage are supposed to help you grow, affirm you, and these are really new ideas,” Schafer said.
Additionally, the easing of morals surrounding sexuality also made it so that women could have sex before marriage but not be “ruined” for marriage. (The idea that someone could have sex before marriage had been around forever, but only now was it “okay.”) Coupled with increased access to effective birth control, these thoughts allowed for a new sort of “trying out” stage, as Schafer describes it. Romantic partners could now live together before marriage without risking pregnancy or respectability.
So, how does this shift affect what we see today?
One change Schafer pointed out is that those who are college-educated are tending to get married later (around 30), whereas those with less education are showing a pattern of not marrying at all. This hasn’t always been the case.
Schafer described marriage as “deferred” for many in younger generations. As college-educated men and women begin careers, she said they face a mountain of student debt to pay down, and many desire to marry after they have their life figured out.
“So it’s not uncommon — and this is probably really true for your generation — that people are thinking ‘Well, I’ll get married later, after I go to college, after I’ve gone to grad school, after I’m more settled,’” Schafer said.
Moreover, divorce rates are dropping. Schafer attributes this to the “trying out” phase of relationships that became common after the sexual revolution. Since people are getting married later and living together before they get married, they’re more often marrying the right person. Weak relationships are failing at the living-together stage, allowing more of the strong ones to make it to marriage.
“So it’s not that people — millennials — or people in your generation are better at being married,” Schafer said. “It’s that when they finally marry … they found the right person. There’s been some trying out. And that’s a really new thing, historically.”
With all these benefits to people marrying later, can there be any risks? Schafer says that one thing she speculates younger generations will have to consider is the relationship between marriage and debt. Now that many people wait to marry until after college, these same people tend to carry a lot of student debt. Once someone marries, they are responsible for their partner’s debt, and younger generations have to think about how they want to handle an issue like this when they choose to marry someone.
Love is Love
Schafer says a belief that is taking over now is the idea that “Love makes a family.” People are creating unique family dynamics that work for themselves instead of trying to shoehorn their relationships into preformed yet outdated arrangements.
“People are actually making families in lots of different configurations now and … marriage might be part of it, but there are blended families and extended families,” Schafer said. “There are lots of ways that people are finding to embed their partnerships in family structures that are not terribly traditional.”
Revision of old paradigms has made more choices in one’s relationships socially acceptable, and younger generations value this ability to choose and decide what’s best for them. People in these age groups enjoy this freedom, and though they still like the idea of marriage, they have liberated themselves from many of the institution’s traditions.
“I think again like with birth control, procreation, and marriage, and love are– people can put them together the way that they want to,” Schafer said. “And … that is a great emancipation to be able to do that.”
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.