Millennials and Marriage

Young Americans have come to believe that they can only achieve “good” marriages through professional success and economic prosperity

Unfortunately, they have things exactly backwards. A good marriage is the sort of thing that almost anyone can aspire to, regardless of skills, education, or status. The most important ingredients for marital success are within any individual’s power to attain. Professional success, by contrast, does reflect hard work and commitment, but it also depends on complex external factors that no individual person can control. For today’s rising generation, those external factors are not looking promising.

 

It’s a cold, sleety Minnesota day, and I’m in a classroom with 25 undergraduate students, talking about marriage. This discussion is the culmination of a mini-unit in which (among other things) we examined sociological data showing worrisome marital trends in America.

We discussed how various social problems, particularly among the poor, might be ameliorated through a strengthening of marriage. Charles Murray’s portrayal of “Fishtown,” combined with the New York Times’ “Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do,’” painted vividly the challenges that a weak marriage culture creates for poor families. Now I put the question to the students: What might help? How can we better encourage people to get and stay married?

A young man raises his hand. “This unit was interesting, but the university should offer whole classes on marriage. A lot of people don’t realize how important it is, for their kids and just for having a happy life.”

Another hand. “They should talk about this in high school, too. It seems like we heard a lot of warnings about drugs and dropping out and safe sex. I don’t remember hearing anything about marriage.”

A third student chimes in, “Parents should talk with their kids about it. Mine never did. I sort of wanted them to, but it was awkward to ask, you know?” A number of heads nodded in agreement.

The first time I heard students talk like this, I was amazed. I have rarely known undergraduates to be so self-aware. I would almost have thought that they were telling me what I wanted to hear, had not long experience taught me that students were thoroughly inept at discerning what I wanted to hear.

Now, after several semesters of discussing marriage with my introductory ethics classes, I’ve heard these concerns expressed enough times to conclude that, for all their righteous zeal concerning sexual freedom, undergraduates do actually know that they are confused about marriage.

This is interesting, particularly since the young people in question are not particularly religious or conservative. My students represent a fairly standard cross-section of middle-class American 20-year-olds. They can talk all day about the evils of global warming and homophobia, but the decline of marriage is, for most of them, a fairly new subject. Nevertheless, they are easily convinced that our society has a marriage problem, because they know that they have a marriage problem, which their teachers and parents have done little to help them resolve.

To me, this frank uncertainty about marriage makes a fitting centerpiece in the tragic tableau of today’s young Americans. They seem to be almost perfectly unsuited to the social and political climate of their time, like hothouse flowers whose cultivators failed to note that they were destined to be planted in an alpine tundra. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: young people want the right things (security, love, and a prosperous life), but they have very wrong ideas about how best to attain them.

Today’s undergraduates are not, for the most part, radicals and revolutionaries. They harbor conventional hopes of professional success and happy marriages. But while they believe that the first can reliably be secured through hard work and dedication, marriage seems in their minds to require a mysterious mixture of good fortune and good chemistry, perhaps combined with the social status that they hope to win through professional success.

Unfortunately, they have things exactly backwards. A good marriage is the sort of thing that almost anyone can aspire to, regardless of skills, education, or status. The most important ingredients for marital success are within any individual’s power to attain. Professional success, by contrast, does reflect hard work and commitment, but it also depends on complex external factors that no individual person can control. For today’s rising generation, those external factors are not looking promising.

The students of private universities are, for the most part, children of privilege, and they behave as such. David Brooks has written extensively on this, and my observations agree largely with his: today’s undergraduates are industrious, well-habituated rule followers who have been superbly socialized to conform to the expectations of their elders. They take it as axiomatic that they have obligations to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate through political action, which is the duty they pay for their ideological commitment to equality.

At the same time, they regard it as their birthright to inherit the prosperous and secure world that their parents mostly enjoyed.

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