Millennials: Society Will Be Just Fine Without Marriage

A poll suggests young people aren't convinced that spouse-hunting and baby-making should be a priority for their generation.
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Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters

The future of marriage, the future of Millennials: two topics the Internet loves to freak out about. Thanks to a new report from Pew, here the twain shall meet: Researchers asked people of all ages whether society is better off if people focus on getting married and having kids.


American Attitudes Toward Marriage and Kids

Pew Research Center

Looking at this chart is a little like taking a Rorschach inkblot test on the topic of "American values": You could see a lot of different things, if you wanted. The most obvious would be Chicken-Little style fears about the coming end of marriage: With just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds affirming the importance of matrimony and maternity, it would be easy to say a quick eulogy for wedding vows. This narrative of decline may be true for certain people in America—those living in poverty, in particular—but for the wealthy and the educated, the institution of marriage is still in very good shape.

You could also read this graph as a manifesto of "not right now": In 2010, the average marriage age was 26-and-a-half for women and nearly 29 for men. It's understandable that 22-year-olds might be blasé about the benefits of marriage and kids—and equally understandable that their 65-year-old counterparts are twice as likely to say it's important. As marriage-shy Millennials age, they might warm to the idea of lifelong commitment. 

But again, the data suggests something slightly more complicated: In a 2013 Gallup poll, 75 percent of respondents were either married or said they wanted to be married. This included 84 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds; only nine percent of Millennials in that poll said they never wanted to get hitched. How can both sets of poll findings be true?

It probably has something to do with the curious way the question was worded in the Pew survey, which asked people to choose from the following two statements:

"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."

The second option seems to leave a lot of room for interpretation. If you think it's okay to want a career plus marriage and kids, you might plausibly end up in that category, even if you think family values are important. 

But it's also possible that the poll results say something about American judge-y-ness. People may want an Instagram feed full of adorable babies for their own lives, but they don't necessarily think society will end if other people don't want the same thing. It's also possible that this says something about the somewhat-taboo nature of evangelizing family values on the left—particularly among liberal-leaning Millennials, it may seem unacceptable to suggest that people, and especially women, need to find husbands and birth children in order to do their part for society. 

The only firm conclusion is this: People clearly aren't buying the argument conservative sociologists from Robert Putnam to Brad Wilcox have been making for years, that marriage is essential for thriving communities. Society, people seem to think, will be just fine without it. 

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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