Compared to other groups, more young adults view marriage as old-fashioned and out-of-date, although more than half agree the institution makes families and children better off
Haley and Brookston Jeppson, 29 and 27 respectively, have a son, 2, and are expecting a daughter in late November. She’s put her master’s degree in math education to work owning a small virtual math tutoring company. He’s currently in school full time.
They fall into the age group most apt to believe marriage is old-fashioned or not needed for a family to flourish. But that’s not their view.
“I think there’s a level of commitment that comes with marriage that isn’t there with cohabitation,” Haley Jeppson said. “I also think that kids’ happiness and health and security comes a lot from the quality of the parents’ relationship.”
Americans and the institution of marriage have historically been a love story. Most American adults believe marriage is key to forging strong families, even as the view of marriage has evolved some from a cornerstone on which family life could be built to a capstone accomplished after checking off a list of other things to do in life if one chooses to marry at all.
Not all young adults share Jeppson’s faith that being legally married matters. Young adults seem less committed to the concept of marriage than they were in 2015, when the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy first teamed up to conduct the American Family Survey. The nationally representative poll conducted by YouGov looks at attitudes about family life against a background of current events.
The 2021 survey was released Tuesday from Washington, D.C. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
More adults generally agreed being legally married is less important than having a “personal sense of commitment to your partner,” nearly 48% compared to 31%. But all age groups agree that marriage makes families and children better off financially, including close to half of the 18- to 29-year-olds. And more of them agree “marriage is for life, come what may,“ though in smaller shares than those of other ages.
Asked if marriage is more of a burden than a benefit to families, nearly 62% disagreed at least somewhat. Among young adults 18 to 29, 51% at least somewhat disagree, while 17% agree. But that’s more agreement than among older adults. Folks also largely feel marriage is needed to create strong families, but fewer young adults say that, too.
“Among younger generations, we’re definitely seeing some important social changes,” said demographer and Institute for Family Studies research fellow Lyman Stone, who wasn’t involved in the study. “We’re seeing less attachment to marriage, and to some extent, smaller family desires.”
“I don’t want to oversell it, but there is a hint that attitudes toward marriage are changing,” said Jeremy C. Pope, pointing to the responses when asked if marriage is old-fashioned and out-of-date.
That view of marriage is concentrated among the young adults, said Pope, who co-directs the BYU center with Christopher F. Karpowitz. The duo co-wrote the American Family Survey report. “But if you look across the young-adult spectrum, in 2015, 1 in 10 said so. Now it’s 2 in 10. That’s a significant jump.”
In 2015, more than 6 in 10 respondents across ages agreed marriage was needed to create strong families, a number that has fallen 8 percentage points, though Pope said evidence that marriage makes families and children better off is “overwhelming. Those who disagree tend to be “liberal, rich and often experienced a toxic marriage,” he said.
He pointed out, though, that belief in the idea that marriage is “more of a burden than a benefit” dropped slightly during the pandemic.
Young and pro-marriage
Marriage still has plenty of fans among young adults like the Jeppsons.
Angela Lavender, 22, is in the age group most apt to say that marriage is dated and not necessary to build a strong family, but she believes in marriage, she told the Deseret News. It’s not just that she was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which promotes marriage and sexual abstinence beforehand. It also makes sense to her that marriage shows a commitment that doesn’t automatically exist with cohabitation, she said.
The Utah Valley University graduate married her sweetheart, Dayton Lavender, 23, a year ago. While they’re busy with his college education and their jobs right now, she believes when they do have children, the kids will benefit from the stability that comes with their commitment to each other through marriage.
The Jeppsons have been married almost five years. Haley Jeppson said for a successful marriage, couples must put in effort daily, like people do with exercise or other healthy habits. She thinks it’s probably easier to commit to doing that work when you’ve decided to commit to the person in a way that feels permanent. Marriage, for her, checks that box.
Still, she adds, “that doesn’t mean if you’re married you’re for sure going to have a better family dynamic than someone who’s cohabiting.”
Galena K. Rhoades, research professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, agrees — with a caveat. She said she suspects if a couple is committed to having a healthy relationship and a strong parenting relationship but is also committed for whatever reasons to not being married, they could probably give their children the same benefits as marriage.
“But it’s so much easier to do that within the institution of marriage, because it’s set up to support just those values and tenets for raising children together. And it’s also a signal to the rest of the community about the state of the relationship,” said Rhoades, who was not involved in the survey.
Richard J. Petts, Ball State University professor of sociology, said other family forms have become as accepted as marriage, though marriage is still viewed as “sort of the ideal.” But that ideal is getting harder to achieve. People expect their marital partner to be a best friend, a lifelong companion, an “idealized notion no one can live up to. And people also have extravagant views of what a wedding should be.”
That so many young adults are less sure marriage is essential doesn’t mean most of them won’t marry. But as early as 2014, Pew Research Center was predicting that could be the case for as many as one-fourth of young adults. And one’s attitude about marriage isn’t the only factor. Delaying marriage and cohabitation are among reasons some young people may not end up married at all, according to a study by Wendy Wang, Institute for Family Studies research director. Meanwhile, experts say young adults often put marriage behind completing their education and being financially stable.
Many young adults see marriage as “nice,” but not a priority and view their 20s as a time to focus on education, work and fun, said Brad Wilcox, a survey adviser whose titles include director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and senior scholar at the Institute for Family Studies. He notes that when young adults delay marriage and starting a family, they become less likely to do either.
And while marriage and family typically provide some direction and purpose, unmarried men especially are likely to instead “drift,” he said, adding that men and women, even in their 20s, are “markedly less happy and more likely to fall into substance abuse when they are not married.”
The pandemic pointed out the importance of healthy romantic partnerships. Polls found relationships that had been struggling didn’t fare well. But healthy relationships and marriages for the most part stayed that way despite the pressures brought on by COVID-19, including job loss, too much time together for some couples and the need to redefine roles for families with children, especially around remote schooling, Rhoades said.
“Families that had stronger relationships to begin with found themselves enjoying that extra time together,” she said.
“We know from decades of research, and I think most people’s experience as well, that kids do best when they’re raised by both of their parents in a happy, healthy relationship. And when they’re not, it creates many more stressors — for the parents, but also for children, including things like economic stress, emotional stress and just more negativity,” Rhoades said. “Supporting marriage, or lifelong committed relationships in raising children, matters because we know those relationships are so important to children’s futures.”
Surveys can’t always capture attitudes, though, Rhoades said. “One of the things we don’t know from the American Community Survey is how young people today are thinking about their commitment to each other and their commitment to raising children in a lifelong committed relationship,” she said, referring to the Census Bureau’s well-studied national survey on American life.
She said erosion in respect for marriage among the younger generation could also mask “almost a social justice view on marriage — that if not everyone is allowed to marry or it is seen as a religious institution, those parts may not be important to them and to society. But we don’t know whether that means they’re also not committed to a lifelong relationship and raising children within a lifelong relationship, even without the label of marriage. I think more needs to be done to understand that.”
Cohabiting has not proven to be very stable in the United States, Karpowitz said. Some people do move from cohabitation to marriage. Those tend to be better-educated and have higher incomes than most cohabitors. But more cohabiting couples split up.
“In a world where we’re seeing increasing economic insecurity, growing political polarization and less social trust, I think there’s a kind of ignorance out there about how much marriage matters in people’s lives,” said Wilcox.
Among the benefits of marriage, he lists:
- Those growing up in intact married homes are more likely to reach the upper middle-class.
- They’re more likely to attend and graduate from college.
- They’re more likely to avoid trouble with the legal system and incarceration.
“When your family is strong and stable, you are, on average, more likely to flourish. And when it’s not, you’re more likely to flounder,” he said, adding people who don’t affirm the value of marriage “just don’t know the science.”
Both Pew Research Center data and the American Family Survey over time have shown many young adults think a job is more likely to provide fulfillment than is marriage, Wilcox said. “That’s just factually incorrect. We know that marital status is a better predictor of satisfaction than employment and that marital quality is a better predictor of your happiness in life than your job satisfaction.“
Ours vs. yours
Throughout the American Family Survey’s history, couples have given their own marriages higher marks than marriages in general.
They’ve said the same about their families, too.
Overall, 45% agree to some extent that society is better off when more people are married, compared to 20% who somewhat or completely disagree. Men agreed far more than women, at a rate of more than half, compared to about 4 in 10, according to the 2021 survey.
Over a quarter of those polled said they felt at some point in the past two years their marriage or relationship was in trouble. Women were slightly more likely to say that than men. And though there were significantly fewer unmarried couples surveyed, they were markedly more likely to say that, at nearly 46% compared to 24% of married couples.
The survey also asked families whether having a child is affordable for most families; Only one-fourth said yes, compared to more than half who said no. The noes included 6 in 10 of the young adults.
Both Wilcox and Stone say young adults who put off marriage and starting families may be closing doors they’ll find hard to open later, should they change their mind. Stone’s particularly concerned that women don’t get to have the families they say they desire at the size they view as optimal.
Karpowitz said the attitude of the young-adult generation toward marriage bears watching as it could impact future fertility rates and family stability, but he’s not surprised they see things differently than older Americans. They are living through a pandemic, after experiencing as younger children the effects of the 2008 economic downturn. They were born right after Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“There’s just been this series of really big challenges,” said Karpowitz. “Those of us who are interested in the role of marriage and family in the United States today need to do a better job of communicating that by and large people love their marriages, love their families, and find strength and support there.”