Gen Y Asks: Why Marry?

“Emily Nichols is 20. She lives in Oregon and attends community college. She doesn’t have a job right now for health reasons. She found out several weeks ago that she is pregnant. She and her boyfriend Andy are taking it one step at a time. One step at a time, however, doesn’t entail marriage, at least right now.” - Oliver Read, Generation Next, on PBS.org.

Emily is a member of Generation Y or Millennial Generation. Though there are no precise dates for when this post-Gen X demographic group starts and ends, it is generally considered to encompass people born between the early 1980s the early 2000s. As a group, they’ve endured their share of bad press: they’ve been labeled spoiled, narcissistic, and immature. TIME magazine has referred to them as the “Me Me Me Generation."

Gen Y members have also been accused of “delayed adulthood”– a failure to reach the five traditional milestones that sociologist believe mark the transition to adulthood – completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. According to Kimberly Palmer, author of the book, “Generation Earn”, “high housing prices, the rising cost of higher education, and the relative affluence of the older generation are among the factors driving the trend.” “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes...forestalling the beginning of adult life,” writes Robin Marantz Henig, in “What is it About 20-Somethings,” in the New York Times Magazine.
 
The institution of marriage seems to have taken a particularly big hit among members of Gen Y. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that almost 1 in 3 young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 have delayed marriage or parenthood because of the economy. Today, just 20% of adults 18-29 are married, compared with 60% in the 1960s; for Gen X it was 30% and for boomers more than 40%.

Gen Y is delaying or abandoning marriage due to a variety of reasons, including economic, social and sexual factors. Some of it comes from worry about being financially stable enough to make a commitment because of growing up during difficult economic times. Caution to commitment stems from their caution towards life in general. Another one of the reasons cited for Gen Y waiting longer to get married and having children out of wedlock is that they supposedly don’t want to get divorced, having seen many of their parents or parents friends go through difficult divorces.

Dr. Larry Nelson, a Marriage, Family and Human Development professor at Brigham Young University notes that, “In prior generations, you get married and you start a career and you do that immediately. What young people today are seeing is that approach has led to divorces and unhappy career choices. The majority want to get married, they just want to do it right the first time. “

But while they may put off ‘making it official’ and/or walking down the aisle, they are, in a sense, ‘playing married’ by moving in together, buying property, and even having children. A survey of Gen Ys by Greenburg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 59% of those surveyed said that cohabitation without marriage was a legitimate lifestyle and a majority said it is okay to remain unmarried even if they have children, and only half of them agreed that marriage is “one of the most important institutions in this country.”

They also overwhelmingly believe that their peers are not responsible enough for marriage, and think the number of unhappy marriages and frequency of divorce calls the value of marriage into question. Gen Y men, in particular, have been accused of being especially wary of committed relationships. Forget about marriage, they don’t even want boyfriend/girlfriend commitments.

Members of Gen Y, however, are likely making a huge mistake in discounting the value of marriage. They cite emotional and financial concerns when giving reasons for delaying or abandoning marriage. Marriage actually offers significant emotional, financial, and health benefits over single life. Marriage confers huge benefits on men, in particular. Numerous studies have documented that married men, in general, earn higher pay, get more promotions, have more and better sex, and are healthier then their single counterparts.

Marriage also provides important legal protections that are not available to couples that are merely cohabitating, including community/marital property rights, inheritance rights and rights to health insurance. The importance of these legal protections, particularly in long-term relationships or relationships that involve children, the pooling of financial resources or the acquisition of property, simply cannot be understated. While it is true that divorce can be expensive and emotionally draining, the alternative is far, far worse. Trying to equitably unwind a long-term relationship without the protection of the marriage laws is often impossible and usually financially devastating to one of the parties.

The reality is that when two people are in a serious relationship (and relationships that involve cohabitation are, by their very nature, serious), they tend to take on different roles in nurturing the partnership. Both parties forego other potential relationships and marriage partners. Often one person sacrifices his or her career for the benefit of the relationship. The couple also might purchase a house together, but only put the deed to it in one person’s name. One person might pay the rent or mortgage and the other person might contribute to their retirement account. As a result, the couple acts just like a married couple. The parties, however, don’t get the protection of the marriage laws in the event the relationship ends, and cohabitation relationships end at a rate greater than marriage. Often, one party will lose his or her claim to financial assets that the parties jointly contributed to or acquired during the relationship. The end result: all of the problems of divorce (or worse) without the benefit of marriage.

The situation is only exacerbated when children are involved. The choice to have children outside of marriage is more often than not financially devastating for both parents. Our firm has seen had a growing number of custody and child support cases involving parties who were never married. Unless you belong to the “1%”, trying to raise a child as a single parent is incredibly difficult, both financially and logistically. For most of our clients, even with the benefit of child support payments, the numbers just don’t add up, when food, clothing, medical care, transportation and daycare are factored in. The stress of our clients in these situations is palpable.  

Choosing to avoid marriage to potentially avoid a future divorce is incredibly shortsighted and likely a huge financial mistake for members of Gen Y. Our advice: wait, find the right person, get married and then have children. Society is simply not set up to support alternative arrangements.

This article was the basis for a story on CBS/Philly - KYW News Radio.  To read that story click here.


Gen X Women in No Hurry to Have Children

A survey conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that Gen Xers (33 to 46 years of age) “should be at the prime of their lives and careers, stepping into crucial leadership roles and starting families.”

However, most Gen Xers are following a different path…and that includes the decision NOT to have children.  In 1990, 10% of 45-year-old women were childless; in 2009 this figure rose to 20%.

In the most recent survey, 43% of women (and 32% of the men) who responded said they were delaying or even opting out of parenting.

An article in the U.K Mail Online stated that almost half of the Gen X women they surveyed were still childless well into their 30s and 40s.

Interestingly, the majority of those surveyed were either married or cohabiting.


Cooley & Handy are Divorce Lawyers and Personal Injury Attorneys serving individuals and families in Bucks County, Montgomery County and Philadelphia. We help our clients navigate the ever changing and always challenging legal system with knowledge, experience and a healthy dose of creative problem solving. This newsletter shines a light on some of our latest cases and news of note.

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