• November 2011

Millennials and Marriage: What Drives Their Decisions?

By Kristin Nauth
Innovaro, Inc.

Millennials are marrying in much smaller numbers than would normally be expected of Americans in their 20s.

In 2010, when Millennials began reaching age 30, just 22 percent were married—a sharp drop from the approximately 30 percent of Gen Xers, 40 percent of Baby Boomers, and 50 percent of Silent Generation members who were married at this age, according to research by the Pew Research Center.

Moreover, Millennials’ attitudes toward marriage seem to reflect apathy for the institution. Pew found that only 30 percent of adult Millennials say that having a successful marriage is one of their most important life goals, for example, while 44 percent think marriage is becoming obsolete.

Why are Millennials so divergent from other living generations in their marriage behaviors and attitudes?

And will their reticence endure over the long term, or does it simply reflect their current stage of life and the challenges of the post-recession economy?

These questions are significant for US consumer lifestyles, since Millennials are a huge generation (with at least 80 million members) and the choices they make about marriage and family formation will ripple through myriad sectors, from housing to education to consumer products.

Innovaro Insight & Research recently interviewed several leading authorities as part of its Global Lifestyles project to explore the future of Millennials and marriage. The experts were Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of “Millennial Momentum,” and “Millennial Makeover,” and Tamara Erickson, author of “Plugged In,” and an expert on generational / workforce issues.

Their analyses are supplemented with survey findings from the Pew Research Center, as well as other sources, and are presented here for Be Inkandescent Magazine.

In general, the experts tend to agree that:

  • Millennials are delaying marriage primarily because of formative experiences and values that are ingrained in their generation, rather than due to temporal events (such as high unemployment).
  • These same generational experiences and values will likely lead Millennials to start marrying in much greater numbers as they move into their 30s.

This “generational” interpretation is bolstered by the fact that, according to Pew, 70 percent of adult Millennials say they want to marry someday. As Hais put it, “For Millennials, marriage is not an either / or question—it will simply happen at a different pace.”

If so, then as the Millennials enter their 30s, they could start forming families at rates not seen since the years following World War II, when the GI Generation gave birth to the Baby Boomers.

When they do, they will start transforming US families in myriad ways—leading to more cohabitation, multigenerational households, and stay at-home dads, and potentially, the advent of paid paternity leave.

What are the formative experiences that are driving Millennials’ marriage choices?

Like all age cohorts, Millennials share a broad set of formative experiences. In turn, many experts believe, these experiences have fostered certain underlying values, which collectively form a generational “personality” and common behavioral tendencies.

According to demographic analysts William Strauss and Neil Howe, Millennials carry the classic generational profile of a “civic generation,” like the GI Generation of the 1940s and the generations that fought the Civil War and Revolutionary War.

Millennials also share formative experiences unique to their own generation, adding important facets to their profile that seem to be reinforcing their hesitation to marry. Civic generations have historically emerged every 80 years or so.

One of their hallmarks is that they grow up during times of widescale volatility and transition. For example, the last civic generation, the GIs (born 1902–1924; also known as the Greatest Generation) came of age during global crises including the Great Depression and World War II. This bred values such as faith in institutions, a sense that the world is random and unpredictable, and a powerful commitment to working together to make things better.

This background may play directly into the question of when and whether to marry. In fact, Hais and Winograd point out that like the Millennials, the GIs also delayed marriage: when the GIs were the age Millennials are now, the median age at first marriage was 24.4 for men and 21.3 for women—comparatively old for their time. In subsequent decades, when the Silent and Boomer generations were ready to marry, the age of first marriage fell back to historical norms.

“This slowness to marry and have children was as true for the GI Generation in the 1930s and 1940s as it is for Millennials now,” Hais comments.

Like the GIs and other civic generations before them, Millennials have grown up in an atmosphere of crisis. “We’re the generation of instability,” one blogger on TheNextGreatGeneration.com wrote.

They have faced:

Terrorism. When today’s adult Millennials were children, the United States suffered at the hands of domestic and international terrorists. The oldest Millennials were in high school during the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and in early college during the Columbine school massacre of 1999. Just two years later, they witnessed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Global financial meltdown. As young adults embarking on their work lives, the Millennials suffered through the global economic crisis of 2008–2009 along with older Americans. To a youthful generation unaccustomed to booms and busts, widescale financial instability has reinforced the sense of a random world. “Difficult economic circumstances are a commonality among civic generations across history,” notes Morley Winograd.

This ingrained sense of the world as random and subject to unpredictable crises is likely feeding Millennials’ relationship behaviors—such as their cautious approach to big life decisions such as marriage, or their propensity to live fully for today and use their youth to sample a variety of life experiences, according to Tamara Erickson.

Family diversity. Millennials have grown up in a period when US family structures are radically diversifying. Data from Pew shows that nearly a third were raised by divorced parents, and they witnessed great diversity in the families around them. Largely because of this, they are less critical of gay marriage, cohabitation, single parenthood, and other unconventional family types than other Americans—and they feel this same tolerance should be applied to their own relationships.

Strong relationships with both parents. Millennials’ parents—who are roughly divided between Boomers and Gen Xers—invented “helicopter parenting,” marked by close, continual involvement in their children’s lives.

Long life expectancy. According to Erickson, Millennials are highly aware that they have longer life expectancies than any previous US generation, and this has fed into their postponement of marriage.

“In the past when people had shorter lifespans, the norm was that everyone got married by a certain age. Today, with Millennials recognizing their very long life expectancies, we see much more variation and leisure around making those choices,” she suggests.

Financial Expectations

Since Millennials have faced the worst job market of any US youth generation in living memory, financial insecurity seems like a logical driver behind their slowness to marry.

Yet equally important is that when Millennials are asked to look beyond current difficulties, they are highly optimistic about their financial futures. In 2010 Pew survey, just 31 percent said they were earning enough to lead the kind of life they wanted—but 88 percent of these believed they would earn enough in the future.

Specific values are driving Millennials’ marriage choices:

Together, classic civic-generation experiences and Millennials’ unique variations on them have given rise to a singular set of generational values, which may be driving their marriage-related decisions.

These values include:

  • A cautious approach to big life decisions
  • Youth as a time for odyssey
  • Tolerance for a wide range of lifestyles
  • Faith in institutions
  • Acceptance of new gender roles—for both men and women

What do these values mean for business and society?

  • They will transform family life. In the next five to 10 years, Millennials are very likely to start marrying in large numbers, and this trend will continue for at least two decades as successive waves of Millennials reach the end of their odyssey years and move into a new life stage focused on creating their own families. Like other civic generations before them, they will both honor and transform traditional institutions, including marriage.

“Modern families and parenthood will have an entirely different look as the Millennial generation establishes its own families and begins to raise children,” say Winograd and Hais.

  • They will be the next big parental market. Just as Boomers became “the pig in the python,” moving en masse through each life stage, Millennials will soon dominate family culture in the United States. Their distinctive values and attitudes toward marriage, family, and parenthood should be closely studied by all consumer-facing companies. Marketers need to continually monitor how Millennial family formation evolves, whether that means traditional marriages, committed cohabitants, or co-parents living separately.
  • They will seek work/life blending. Gen Xers’ request for “balance” will be replaced by Millennials’ demand for a truly seamless blend between work and family. The level of blending that Millennials have already begun demanding as young professionals in the workplace—for example, being allowed to engage with their social networks while on the job—will also carry over to their new family lives. Practices such as telecommuting, flex-time, onsite childcare, and full-time access to social media could become mandatory for attracting and retaining talent.
  • They will likely choose multigenerational living. Millennials’ closeness with their parents won’t end with marriage and parenthood, and the United States is quite likely to see a resurgence of multigenerational living driven by Millennials. A 2010 Pew survey found that two-thirds of Millennials say that adult children have a responsibility to allow their elderly parents to come live with them.
  • They’ll keep it all together with tech. As digital natives, Millennials will turn to technology as a key tool for organizing, operating, and managing their household and family activities. There will be great opportunities for organizations to help Millennials in this realm, from family calendaring to managing household finances and budgets.

About Innovaro—Insights & Research

Innovaro Insight & Research helps organizations understand and shape the future of their business. Through its syndicated and custom research services, it provides actionable business insights to help clients uncover emerging consumer needs and behaviors, anticipate and seize growth opportunities, define critical emerging issues shaping the future of their industry, mitigate risk, and enrich decision-making. For more information visit /www.innovaro.com.

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