September 21–27 is Unmarried and Single Americans week. And there are more people to celebrate it than ever. A record share of adults 25 and older, 1 in five, have never been married, according to a recent Pew Research report. What is more, a recent study from the Urban Institute suggests that many of these single millenials may never marry: “Even if marriage rates bounce back substantially,” from recession and postrecession levels, the report suggests, “the percentage of millennials marrying by age 40 will still decrease below the level for any previous generation of Americans.”
What should we make of these gloomy figures and forecasts?
The factors that contribute to the decline are myriad. For one thing, many Americans are getting married later. And for another, many unmarried Americans are not single. According to the Pew Report, “24 percent of never-married Americans ages 25 to 34 currently live with a partner.”
Finances also impact young people’s decision to marry. As Catherine Rampell recently explained—on behalf of her fellow millenials—“We want to move out. We want to own our home. We want to marry. We want to work. The problem is, many of us can’t.” According to Rampell “Economic opportunity has a lot to do with both. Unemployment rates for the youngest adults remain high, and they look far worse when you include people who aren’t actually looking for work but still say they want a job.”
Rampell does seem to accurately represent the feelings of her age group. According to the Pew Report, 53 percent of never married adults say they would like to marry some day. But more than 25 percent of those individuals never married who want to marry in the future, say they are not financially prepared to marry.
But another finding in the Pew report caught my eye:
Survey respondents were asked which of the following statements came closer to their own views: Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority, or society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children. Some 46 percent of adults chose the first statement, while 50 percent chose the second.
Less than 50 percent of those surveyed believe that marriage is a public good worth prioritizing. And among adults 18–29, two-thirds do not see a value of marriage for society worth prioritizing.
This is significant. Three-quarters of millenials made a contribution to a nonprofit and 57 percent volunteered in in 2011. When millenials think a cause is important, they support it. So perhaps one reason fewer young adults are getting married, despite the fact that they personally would like to, is precisely because the desire for marriage is only a personal preference.
If the only criterion for evaluating the good of a marriage is the couple’s satisfaction, it’s easy to understand why finances would play such an important role in the decision to marry. As Claire Cain Miller observed earlier this week, if marriage only fulfills a personal desire, it becomes, “an indulgence that is easier for well-off people to take advantage of. . . . The benefits of sharing passions are more likely to accrue to people who have the time and money to invest in them.” So Marriage is put off indefinitely as individuals wait for the perfect circumstances—and perfect person—for marriage.
How can millenials be convinced that marriage is, in fact, a good for society well worth prioritizing? It seems clear that marriage is good for children. Studies have shown, that children who grow up in intact married families are more likely to go to college, to have stable marriages themselves, and to perform better according to various other markers of success than children who do not. This is surely proof that marriage is good for society.
But perhaps a better way to convince single millenials that marriage is good for society is to convince them that marriage is good for, well, single millenials. Married people, according to one study, “are less likely to socialize with neighbors and less likely to hang out with friends.” They are “less likely to give emotional support or advice and less likely to provide practical support such as help with household chores or transportation” to their friends and family. Married couples could make a conscious effort to check these tendencies and to invite their single friends to participate in their family life. Invite them to dinner, invite them to become friends with your spouse, invite them to your kid’s soccer game, heck, invite them to babysit your kids and go see a movie.
I don’t at all want to suggest that the financial obstacles to marriage are not real. But if young adults come to see that marriage as a good not just for the married couple, but for the community, they might see it as something worth doing—and something doable—despite those financial obstacles.