In 2016, Time magazine reported that divorce rates had reached a 40 year low. After a sharp increase in the 1970’s, these numbers have steadily dropped over the past three decades. While this is great news for families, this steady decline has also been met with a steady reduction in the number of marriages each year. When compared to the rate of marriage, the divorce rate has dropped very slightly (roughly 46% of all marriages had ended in divorce by 2014), but overall, marriage rates are at an all-time low in nearly a century and a half. It’s no wonder Millennials are waiting longer than ever to get married.
But why is this happening?
Millennials are typically considered to be those born between the early 80’s and early 00’s, originally named for those expecting to graduate around the turn of the millennium. Also sometimes called the “echo boomers”, they are the kids (now in their teens, 20’s and 30’s) born during a period of rising birth rates, and children of the “baby boomers”. Millennials are thought to be civic minded, community oriented, and concerned with both local and global affairs, however, studies show that they are less likely to follow politics, less likely to have deep philosophical views, and less likely to be involved in community programs than previous generations. They are more likely to consider wealth to be very important, and somewhat ironically, more likely to vote. In the decades prior to their birth, we saw the rise of the civil rights movement and 2nd and 3rd wave feminism, which primarily focused on inequality, cultural norms, and the role of women in society, access to birth control, and sexual liberation. The social, political, and cultural liberation of women in the 1960’s likely contributed significantly to the dramatic rise in the divorce rate in the 1970’s and a good part of the changing social landscape we’re experiencing today.
During the forty year period between 1970 and 2010, there was a slow adoption of “no-fault” divorce laws, which some believe made it easier for parents to end their marriages and contributed to a breakdown of the family unit. But the data does not support a direct causal relationship. In fact, no-fault divorce laws not only discourage blame and conflict in an already broken union, but they’ve been attributed to up to a 16% reduction in female divorce-related suicide and a 30% reduction in domestic violence. “No-fault” divorce laws don’t cause divorce, they help reduce the potential damage from high-conflict partners in a highly litigious legal system. Having the ability to end a bad marriage also creates more equality within the relationship, encouraging each partner to invest a little more into their own education and career, putting both on more equal footing. Knowing that both partners have to remain fully invested in order to make relationships work may ultimately result in stronger marriages and stronger families.
A generation born to divorcing parents seems to have resulted in couples waiting longer to get married, but not necessarily to avoid having kids of their own. In 1970, the number of children born to unwed mothers was about 10%. By 1980, it had nearly doubled to 18.9%, and by 2014, it had more than doubled again, to about 40.2%. Today, due to both divorce and unwedded child births, nearly a third of all children in America are growing up in homes without one of their biological parents. This epidemic of single parent, predominantly fatherless households has been correlated with rising social issues such as drug use, teen pregnancy, crime, mental health issues, poor school performance, and increased rates of incarceration. The changing economy has made it more and more difficult to make ends meet on a single income, with about 60% of those kids growing up in single parent households near or below the poverty line. This does not imply that single mothers are to blame for all of the world’s social ills. What it does mean is that we need our nation’s fathers to be equally supported and encouraged in living up to their roles as parents.
An astronomical rise in the number of split homes is not all our up and coming generation has had to deal with. The 1990’s saw a marked uptick of school place death and violence. Since the turn of the century, there have been nearly as many school shootings to date than in the past hundred years. Millennials have early memories of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and the United States entering a period of nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time most millennials had entered the workforce, the world had entered a five year period of economic decline known as the “Great Recession”, which began in 2007 with a financial crisis spurred by rapid declines in the stock market, housing prices, and financial instruments. One in five high school aged boys are taking doctor prescribed amphetamines for ADHD. Nearly twice as many children are on a variety of psychiatric drugs, over 8.3 million kids, including anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety, and antidepressant medications. Millennials have inherited a nation where even a college education doesn’t promise financial security, college loans keep them in debt for decades, and achieving the financial success they desire is all but a pipe dream without a dual income household. The “American Dream”, for many of us, is a relic of the past.
How the American people define their families has changed tremendously from the traditional nuclear households of over half a century ago. By 2002, only 7% of all U.S. families consisted of a two parent household with a stay-at-home mom, children and a working husband. With the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry in 2015, even the institution of marriage itself has been challenged and forever altered in American law and history, with churches and far right conservative voices having less influence than ever on how Millennials interact with one another and achieve their personal happiness. By no means does this mean that traditional marriage is dead. But it does mean that our younger generation has fully embraced that they have the freedom to choose the life and family they want, and with all of these possibilities and social acceptance, perhaps it’s a good thing that they are waiting a little longer to decide exactly how and when the time is right for them to settle down.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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