As the new dominant demographic in the United States, whatever Millennials do as a group goes a long way to establishing new norms. It has been well established that economic forces are compelling Millennials — roughly, those born between 1980-2000 — to postpone major commitments, like purchasing a house or car, as well as getting married or having children. But this shift away from traditional marriage is not limited to the youth end of the demographic spectrum.
A spike in the divorce rate among Baby Boomers and older Americans has given rise to use of the term “gray divorce.” From empty nest couples coping with having their kids grown up and out of the house, to long-suffering mismatches finally calling it quits, seniors are turning away from the tradition of marriage for life at the same rate as Millennials postponing or altogether foregoing such legal unions: 25 percent.
In both cases, economic factors may be at least partly responsible for the new trend. Aside from the early adulthood hardships being endured by a generation of heavily indebted Millennial college grads, younger generations are also finding that women often have as much chance of making it on their own as men, certainly compared to previous generations.
As a generation, Millennials are the most vocal and most hyper-conscious of gender inequality. It is in many ways the defining issue of their time. The history of marriage, as well as marriage laws, can often put it on the wrong side of history where Millennials of any gender are concerned.
Women, largely excluded from higher education and direct participation in the economy, historically played homemaker in exchange for access to a breadwinner. Today, both sexes are discovering that marriage is no longer a key requisite for financial security.
Men — especially Millennial men — have less to offer financially now that they are both heavily indebted and more frequently competing with college-educated women for jobs. Women, increasingly career-driven and fighting the glass ceiling legacies that have limited their learning and earning potential, are more visible, vocal, and essential to the economy than ever before. These Millennial women have plenty to do without negotiating their self-determination with husbands whose masculinity may or may not tolerate earning less or holding a lower title than their wives.
Similar arguments may also be occurring in more established households.
Baby Boomer wives seeking financial security are not obliged to stay in otherwise unhappy or simply unstimulating marriages, now that gender equity in the workplace and across society is gaining ground as a priority for change, and a reality. Without dependent children, and in the face of viable independent earning opportunities, divorce can seem a more attractive option for women looking to live out their golden years on their own terms.
Gender politics have also driven an awareness campaign for intimate partner violence. As colleges confront the pervasive problem of rape on their campuses, workplace harassment and gendered discrimination are also making headlines. This social realignment is disrupting old notions of gender roles right along with rules governing how genders should relate, meaning that marriage and dating are under greater cultural scrutiny.
Along with gender, Americans as a whole and Millennials in particular are increasingly rejecting old identity institutions like political parties and religion. These trends help further undermine historical social pressure for couples to get married or remain married. Without moral, religious, or even legal pressures to marry before cohabiting, the living arrangements of American households are growing less formal.
For all demographics, technology is changing the dating game by making the full range of opportunity not only apparent, but accessible. For Baby Boomers, this realization of the old “plenty of fish in the sea” adage can make divorce seem more palatable. For Millennials who grew up socializing online and utilizing digital devices as a matter of routine, the opportunity costs of monogamy are driving more and more individuals to stay on the market for longer.
Surveys show that the image of a happy, faithful married couple may be more illusory than is often acknowledged. According to data compiled by Florida attorneys Ayo and Iken, more than 40 percent of all married individuals have cheated on their spouses, and an even greater majority — nearly three quarters of men — would cheat if they could be certain they wouldn’t get caught. Clearly, marriage is no more an assurance of monogamy than it is of social and financial stability.
While marriage is still preferred by the majority of Americans, it is far from obligatory or sacred in the minds of a growing segment of the population.