Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate love with a significant other or spouse, but for many young adults, the celebration may be most appealing without a ring. According to recent trends, millennials and Generation Z are more likely to pass on the “traditional” household lifestyle, or the nuclear family, for something more career-driven and flexible.
Rather than taking on the idealized 1950s model of a family, younger generations are thinking about love in a more modern way. Factors such as exposure to divorce during childhood, new ways to find “the one” and accessibility to opportunities have opened the door for a revamped idea of love.
One student following the generational trend is Nathan Carroll, a December 2019 graduate and financial technician for the athletic department.
Carroll’s sister was married in October 2017. Prior to his sister’s ceremony, Carroll’s central exposure to the institution of marriage was within the bounds of involvement with his church.
“Church culture is a lot of times like, ‘Oh, you have got to get married and have kids, because that’s what some of your older friends in the church are doing. Your friends are married, and they’re having a blast with it,’” Carroll said. “And it was just seeing her married and finding her have that one was just such a realization of like, ‘OK, this isn’t something I can force because I want to love like that.’”
Carroll is not alone, and actually follows a growing pattern for younger generations when choosing the timeline of their relationships. As a result of his experience, Carroll thinks of the family dynamic differently; rather than rushing to get married, he is content with waiting for the right person to come along.
Finding “the one”
With the rise of online dating and the effortless ability to swipe left or right on a potential romantic match comes the opportunity for users to hand-tailor their ideal partner instantly, whether through built-in filters or aesthetic features alone.
“I do think our younger generation has become very independent because of the society we grew up in,” said Mikayla Melchert, a senior marketing major. “I believe the purpose of relationships not lasting as long in today’s age is due to the fact that we as a society are always wanting instant results and searching for instant gratification rather than working through progress and problems. Because our generations are constantly wanting instant results, this is where dating apps came into play and really found their place in the dating environment.”
Desiree Brunette, a lecturer in the sociology department, believes that some of the pressure when it comes to making relationship decisions stems from the societal conception about what finding the perfect partner means.
“I think we have this idea that you’re supposed to find this person that’s your end-all-be-all; your best friend. You’re supposed to have hot, passionate sex all the time,” Brunette said. “I think we have this idea that everybody has this one person that’s going to meet all their needs. And they’re going to be a good communicator and passionate and a great parent and a provider, and people are like, ‘I don’t know how to find this person.’ And those people really, quite honestly, don’t exist.”
The modern dating landscape, whether through online dating or other means, aims to make the search for a soulmate more accessible and convenient, but it can also create a false sense of the reality of settling in with a lifetime partner.
Eli J. Finkel described the resulting phenomenon in an opinion article written for the New York Times as the “all-or-nothing marriage.” He hypothesized that higher divorce rates over time could reflect a shift in attitude towards the autonomy of women. Brunette shared a similar sentiment.
“As women become more financially independent, the need for marriage lessens,” Brunette said. “It was a way to keep wealth within the family and marriage is still very much homogenous; people marry people that are like them. And I think that for women, because we’ve seen our mothers and grandmothers [in heterosexual marriages]have to take care of men and women don’t want to do that.”
But higher divorce rates during the adolescence of now-millennial and Gen-Z individuals may be a large contributor to low marriage and reproductive rates now.
A familiar fear
The larger-than-life expectations that come with finding “the one” can be exacerbated when students have been exposed to relationships with rocky foundations or marriages that ended in divorce. Long-term psychological effects also likely play a role in millennials and Generation Z’s skepticism about starting a family.
Newer generation marriages are stabilizing the long-declining divorce rate, but many students were privy to the downfall of marriages, whether of their parents or otherwise, in their adolescence. Dr. Jennifer Weaver, an assistant professor in the psychology department, discussed the likelihood for children of divorced parents to find the same type of union later in their own lives.
“What we see is that kids who grow up as children of divorce, there’s kind of a split: we either see a really early marriage for them occurring, or a very late or no marriage occurring. So, they kind of fall into, kind of, two different categories over time,” Weaver said. “And I think children of divorce are more skeptical of the marriage institution, not surprisingly, especially if they’ve seen a lot of parental discord in marriage.”
The point at which the fear and distaste toward marriage begin, though, does not have to make a permanent mark. Weaver explained that the long-term effects are largely situational, and the damaging effects may be remedied with changing home environments.
“If they were a child who saw a parent divorce, and then saw a parent remarry and then divorce again; those kids that see these subsequent disillusions of marriage are less likely to want to initiate marriage themselves,” Weaver said. “On the other hand, if they were a child that saw their parents divorce but then their parents went into a really good marriage after that and things were stable for them, that can kind of be a healing thing and they might not have such negative attitudes about marriage.”
A negative outlook upon the institution of marriage, while a key factor, is not the only reason that millennials and Generation Z are looking toward options other than the nuclear family.
Obstacles to independence
While her outlook on marriage and children have changed over the years, Delaney Beale is certain about one thing: the traditional nuclear family is not a likely path for her to take.
“I used to not want to get married, like at all,” Beale said. “And then more recently, I was like, that actually sounds kind of dope. I’m still not fully sold on it, because it just seems like a weird thing to get into; being legally married to someone just seems kind of weird. But if you look at it, like for tax purposes and stuff, it makes sense.”
Where the financial changes that come with marriage may help sophomore history major Beale to thrive, the burden that comes with children outweighs the benefits of starting a family.
Beale says kids generally make her anxious, but that climate change, health concerns and finances are also on the list of stressors that come with the idea of having children.
“It’s so much money. It’s so much money,” Beale said. “And I am planning on being a museum curator, which does not make a lot of money. So, the thought of raising a kid on what’s basically lower than a teacher’s salary is terrifying.”
The laundry list of concerns that come with talks of starting a family for millennials and Generation Z also comes from a lack of flexibility in the nuclear family dynamic. Students, like Beale, are often career-driven and potentially fear the hindrance that marriage or children can bring.
Millennials and Generation Z largely thrive on individualism, making independence a central priority in future-impacting decisions. As a result, the nuclear family has been revolutionized; the younger generation’s way has become the new nuclear.
“If I want to get to my goals of being a museum curator or working in a library, I think it definitely could [stifle goals]. Not only do you have to be pregnant for nine months, you still have to take care of a baby after,” Beale said. “Those are years of not being at your full potential of doing things. And I mean, dads are not often wanting to be stay-at-home dads or anything, so it would probably be me. And if I get to the point where I’m close to reaching my goal, I don’t think I would really enjoy having to give that up.”