Sarah Phillips Christian Blog and Commentary

Why Are Young Adults Delaying Marriage?

  • Blog spot for Sarah Jennings Phillips, Family Editor
  • 2011 Sep 30

It's not for lack of interest!

As one who was single throughout her 20's, I often got frustrated at articles exhorting me to stop delaying marriage. The problem, however, is far more complex than singles simply rejecting marriage as their ideal or putting off marriage to pursue a selfish life of partying and luxury.

Last year, a CNN commentary by Leah Ward Sears summarized data released by the National Marriage Project. No, this isn't breaking news, but I think the data and concepts are worth revisiting because I doubt these trends are going away any time soon.

First, a summary of the findings: American couples are getting married later and later or forgoing marriage altogether to simply cohabit. More children than ever are being born outside of wedlock. Divorced and "split" families are much more common today than they were a generation ago.

Sound pretty familiar?

But this data revealed that these trends seem much stronger among those in the middle and lower socioeconomic brackets than in those with higher incomes and levels of education. Even teens in these populations seem to think differently. Sears writes (my emphasis added):

[Brad] Wilcox found that Middle Americans appear to be becoming less "marriage-minded" in some respects than upscale Americans. While 76% of teenagers from upscale America said they would be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant, for example, 61% of Middle Americans said the same.

[Side note: I think it's a bit of a myth to claim there is no stigma left to unwed pregnancy.]

Sears then points out what so many have been saying for so long -- marriage and healthy citizenship seem to go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to rearing the next generation. This means those in Middle America, especially children, could experience big disadvantages compared to higher-income Americans not because of an income gap but because of their family structures:

This [data] is important because, as Wilcox notes, the social science evidence today is indisputable: Children who grow up in intact, married families are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, find work and enjoy a stable family life, compared with their peers who grow up in broken families.

So Americans view marriage and family differently, and that puts the middle and lower brackets at a long-term disadvantage. But why the difference in approach?

Something else Sears mentions is often not commented on: Americans from all groups desire marriage. We highly value it across the board. Sears writes, "Wilcox found that the vast majority of Americans of all classes still say marriage is 'very important' or 'one of the most important things' to them." These aren't "liberated" men and women who have happily decided they don't want to get married anymore. Instead, Middle Americans increasingly perceive their dream of a happy marriage to be unattainable or unrealistic, so they are settling for less. Sears continues, "But while they long for it, few in Middle America today have good models or the confidence that their relationships are strong enough to last: 43% of Middle Americans agreed that marriage has not worked out for most people they know, while 17% of upscale Americans agreed."

As one with a middle American upbringing from a divorced home, I remember the message being loud and clear: Marriage is a risky investment with a 50 percent failure rate. And apparently, I wasn't the only one who got this message. Middle America lacks confidence and optimism that for them, an in-tact family will work. Some may cohabit to "test" a relationship while others may simply put off or reject marriage altogether. Independance is valued, and others may delay marriage to gain financial footing "just in case" things fall apart like it did for Mom and Dad.

Sears offers some solutions:

We can't just put a bandage on the injustice by, for instance, providing support groups only to single parents, albeit support groups certainly can help. Instead, we should help couples, too, achieve the stability for which they long.

This means, among other things, reconnecting marriage and parenthood in the public imagination, encouraging both religious and secular civic organizations to reach out to Americans from less-privileged backgrounds, and also urging state lawmakers to reconsider how existing divorce laws are helping -- or hurting -- our families.

I agree with these solutions here, but unfortunately there are some uncomfortable realities to implementing them. For example, the teacher who taught my college-level "Family Relationships" class sheepishly admitted that while numerous studies strongly show living together before marriage is correlated to detrimental effects on the relationship down the road, he wasn't practicing what his own data preached. He was living with his fiancee. So many of us know at least some steps we can take to strengthen our chances for the healthy future marriage we desire - but we ignore them, even finding the suggestions offensive.

So where does that leave us? First, let's focus on the positive: American youth desire marriage! Marriage has hardly died in spite of the predictions of some. And it looks like it won't be dying any time soon.

The challenge: find ways - and implement those findings - to help young people fulfill this wonderful desire for happy, healthy, stable family life. This is where I think the Church is irreplaceable. We need to decide that our esteem for marriage includes more than just promoting the marriage ideal (which many apparently already buy into), but includes helping young people find hope, healing, and a renewed commitment to courageous virtue through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Sarah Phillips,’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.