It’s not grandma’s world anymore.
By Laura Cohen
There are a few female-centric topics that often become subjects for scientific studies and reports. This includes women’s success as bosses (spoiler alert: they’re killing it) and various examples of pay discrepancy, from women in the White House to women on the big screen. And time and time again, a new study surfaces on this generation’s rate of marriage, mostly pointing to a decline in one of society’s oldest institutions.
An Urban Institute report found that today’s young American adults are on track to have the lowest rates of marriage by age 40 compared to any previous generation. The report said that if the current pace continues, more than 30 percent of millennial women will remain unmarried by age 40, which is nearly twice the share of their Gen X counterparts.
And in response to these findings: Of course.
As a millennial myself, it makes perfect sense. My grandma got married three months after she turned 20 back in 1955. I’m currently 21 and most definitely don’t see that coming anytime soon — the expectation for women to get married in their 20s is completely tired and outdated. Yet we’re still bombarded with shock-value headlines like “Millennials are saying ‘I don’t’ to marriage.” Except what we’re actually saying is “later,” because it just makes more sense to wait. And while reports like to point to the apparent “hook up culture” we live in to further explain singledom, they should be applauding us for focusing on our careers and waiting until we’re sure we’re with the right person (sorry Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, but you’ve made the divorce rate skyrocket).
Friends, family, and colleagues make generally the same argument for why no one should be in a rush to get married these days. Firstly, the most obvious of reasons: Finances. When you get married, your assets can get combined into one big heap. And this can include the piles of student debt many young Americans deal with from the moment they graduate college until they’re middle-aged. Plus, the modern women wants to stand on her own two feet and have her own bank account in order before she starts sharing with someone else. And let’s be honest, a wedding can cost as much as paying for a four-year college education and not everyone wants to splurge on that just yet.
A New York Times article also noted that more couples are choosing to live together without marrying to help keep costs low. The Census Bureau estimates that more than eight million couples were cohabiting in the United States in 2013, up from five million in 2006. If you’re constantly sleeping at your partner’s place, do you really need to keep paying rent for your apartment?
Secondly, it’s easier for women to advance in their career when they’re single because they have fewer responsibilities — unfortunately due to the sexism and wage gap politics still at play today. And, paid maternity leave isn’t enforced everywhere (yet), and only some states make it possible for working moms to take time off to care for sick kids.
But beyond the numbers and the logistics is the most important thing in this new approach to marriage: It says women don’t need a marriage to feel complete.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie raised this point during her TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” which was later sampled in Beyoncé’s feminist anthem “Flawless.” Adichie said, “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.”
We’re certainly socialized to think that way. Countless times I’ve heard friends question other friends’ relationships, wondering why they’ve even bothered staying together for all these years, from high school to college, if they likely won’t end up together in the long run.
The point? Well, one of my colleagues — also a millennial — mentioned that a relationship should really just be about the desire for companionship. For us young women of today, marriage can be the end goal eventually, but in your mid-20s, it may not even be on your mind. And it’s perfectly fine to date without the intention of getting married soon, later, or ever.
My married boss told me she was a different person in her 20s than she is today. “What feels like the most important stuff in your 20s will change once you’re 30 or 35. Our priorities change and a decision a millennial makes — a big one, like a life partner — might not pan out.”
And good news for the career-focused: A paper published in American Sociological Review examines couples who married in the 1950s through the first decade of the new millennium, and found that the tendency for couples to split up where the wife had more education actually disappeared in the 1990s. So basically, if you decide to wait on matrimony to focus on yourself and pursue your own goals, your marriage isn’t doomed. Hooray!
Females today are smart and savvy — there are more women graduating college than men, after all. We’re thinking of marriage seriously — if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be for a good reason. My mom always tells me you need to have relationships to know what you like or don’t like. In her words, “You are going to date some losers and some winners.” So we’re taking our time to do just that. Sorry, not sorry.