Millennials and Marriage

February 17, 2012

This is the second of a two-part article on the political and economic forces surrounding marriage trends. Part One may be found here.

Earlier this week, Stephanie Coontz, an author and professor specializing in family and marriage, wrote The M.R.S. and the Ph.D. in the New York Times. The purpose of her article was to discredit claims that educated women are less likely to marry, as Kate Bolick claimed in her article All The Single Ladies. Bolick noted the “dramatically shrinking pool of…marriageable men – those who are better educated and earn more than women do.” Coontz asserts that women are worried about scaring away potential partners, including those who earn less, and have less education. She believes that women’s primary objections to marrying men with lower social status are outdated, revolving around the need for them to do all the housework to assuage the husband’s ego, and the belief that men earning less than their wives are more likely to struggle with erectile dysfunction. In other words, she believes that women fear they will emasculate their attractive, but less accomplished husbands.

In truth, women will be loathe to marry those men, not because they worry about the male ego, but because they will resist partnering with men of lower social status than themselves. Coontz defines the problem in terms of what women want, when she should be focusing on the failure of American institutions to produce a generation of thriving males. She wants women to marry down rather than to bring men up. 

Though Coontz briefly mentions female hypergamy – the desire a woman has to marry a man of higher social status than herself – she dismisses it as a cultural construct prevalent from the 40s to the mid-70s. She argues that the modern woman has no such baggage to contend with:

The most important predictor of marital happiness is not how much she looks up to her husband but how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how willing he is to share the housework and child-care. And those traits are often easier to find in a low-key guy than a powerhouse.

Hmmmph, try telling that to Athol Kay at Married Man Sex Life. If Stephanie Coontz doesn’t correctly grasp the nature of female hypergamy, how can we expect college students to do so? Fellow blogger Bb shares the other important half of the equation:

Coontz seems to be ignoring attraction completely, and advocating straight for comfort qualities only…If a relationship is a fire, then attraction provides the spark to light it up. Comfort serves as coal to sustain. But you need both to keep the flames going.

The Wall St. Journal’s James Taranto, in Girls Gone Hyper, takes Coontz to task for her Muddled Feminist Think. 

Marriage has declined much less sharply among the educated and affluent than among the so-called working class. But it has still declined, and it can be expected to decline more absent a reversal of the trend toward greater female education and accomplishment.

Taranto gets it re female sexual attraction:

For young ladies anxious about spending their lives alone, Coontz offers this advice:

Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to reject the idea that the ideal man is taller, richer, more knowledgeable, more renowned or more powerful. The most important predictor of marital happiness for a woman is not how much she looks up to her husband but how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how willing he is to share the housework and child-care. And those traits are often easier to find in a low-key guy than a powerhouse.

I am not arguing that women ought to “settle.”

That last sentence is both funny and poignant. Coontz has just advised young ladies to marry short, poor, ignorant, obscure, ineffectual men who will help with household chores. If that’s not settling, the word has no meaning.

Taranto mentions William Bennett’s recent exhortation that “It’s time for men to man up.” He sees Bennett as making the same argument as Coontz, urging men to win women by doing what used to be considered women’s work. 

Both think that more equality between the sexes will make marriage more attractive. But if female hypergamy is an immutable feature of humanity’s animal nature, it will have the opposite effect.

Taranto sees this effort as a bizarre attempt to match cat ladies with basement dwelling boys. He has a point – the “have nots” comprise females past their fertility expiration date, and males who haven’t yet reached independent adulthood. 

Cat lady Dominique Browning, writing recently in the New York Times (The Times is soooo on Team Quirkyalone!) is quick to assert that women are the more independent sex:

The world divides into two groups: one (men), who think you can fall at any moment, and when you’re down, you’re out, and you need help; the other (women), who pick themselves up and move on.

…Men are hard-wired to feel danger all the time. I know there must be science around somewhere to back up this assertion, but seriously, that’s what makes a man a man. A man is on guard because that is his job…Being alone feels dangerous to a man. No one has your back. No one feeds you. No one nurses you in your sickbed. No one takes up a watch if you vanish or sends out a search party if you wander off the trail.

…To a woman, being home feels safe. We love our nests. We tend them, and in exchange we expect them to keep us snug and warm and serene and safe. Which, generally, they do. Because nests are reliable.

…A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Now I understand why a man needs marriage like a fish needs water.

It’s a mistake to assume that middle-aged women, triumphant in divorce and retreating to feminist slogans, speak for a new generation of women. Here are some findings about the women of Generation Y, born between 1985 and 2004:

  • “Personal” goals of getting married, having children or owning a home trump “professional” goals of becoming a manager, earning a certain salary or starting a business. (63% vs. 23%).
  • 81% of Gen Y women plan to return to work after having children.
  • Research by the Families and Work Institute found that 50% of Gen Y (men and women) place higher priority on family than work, 37% place the same priority on their work and family, and only 13% place higher priority on work than their family.
  • A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 52% of Gen Y polled thought being a good parent was of the utmost importance in life.
  • 68% say becoming a mom is on their priority list.
  • A large number of Gen Y women are burning out on their careers by age 30. While 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, that number drops to 37% for middle-management.
  • 70% of Millennials (men and women) want to marry, and 74% want children.
  • A survey of Gen Y women revealed that 59% feel that “living together” is a legitimate lifestyle and a majority said it is okay to remain unmarried even if they have children.
  • Demographer Kenneth Gronbach believes that Generation Y will begin to “marry with a vengeance” as they hit the average age at first marriage.

The body of research is all about predicting what Millennials will do. They actually haven’t gotten there yet. The oldest Gen Y’ers are just 27 today, still below the average marriage age. They grew up in a highly materialistic culture that prioritizes pleasure over responsibility and hookups over relationships.  Companies are scrambling to figure out how to market most effectively to this entitled demographic, in some cases offering an outright argument for delaying marriage:


We don’t know how many of the next generation of women will get married, or to whom. I believe that the vast majority of women will continue to want to marry, and some will be disappointed. Rather than listen to the embittered women who want them to opt out entirely, they should embrace a long-term strategy for marriage and family by seeking out good men early and taking themselves off the market once they’ve found one.