What We Can Learn From the Dramatic Dip in Divorce Among Millennials

Millennials may be proving that coming to marriage later, with less rigid roles, is enabling the sort of marriages that Boomers idealized—and too often failed to create.
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The latest census figures show an 18 percent drop in the divorce rate among Millennials compared with earlier generations at the same ages. It's the first decline in divorce rates in more than a century. To a sociologist like me—I study marriage and divorce patterns—this is stunning news.

But it shouldn't be.

Millennials act differently from their parents—and, sometimes, that's because of their parents. The Baby Boom generation has had the highest divorce rate in recorded American history, but it's also the only generation that has increased its divorce rate as the Boomers aged into their 60s and beyond. A large number of Millennials experienced household and emotional instability growing up, and they didn't like it.

In fact, they disliked it so much that other trends have followed. Women began marrying later. And, looking at the sudden impoverishment of their mothers after divorce, women decided to become much more economically self-sufficient. They increased their number of years in school or in vocational training partly so they could take care of themselves. Men, too, married later and extended their years of schooling. And everyone faced a daunting economy as they left high school or college. This became the era of the unpaid internship and middle-class and upper-middle-class kids taking low-wage jobs they would have scorned in another economy.

Young people have also seemed to stay young longer, as more school and less compelling jobs have combined with a desire to spend longer having fun. There has been less dating and more hanging out or hooking up. Job traction was evasive until their late 20s and early 30s. They delayed marriage and childbirth until their late 20s and early 30s—in fact, now is the first time in history that more American women are having babies in their 30s than in their 20s.

What's more, college-educated women are now far more likely to get married than women without a degree, another departure from prior norms. As a result, Millennial women have been more mature, and the economy has often been better, when women finally decide to look for a spouse. They can thereby be more professionally established, and less dependent on their husbands' incomes.

Unlike women in the 1970s, who were sometimes disadvantaged in the marriage market if they'd experienced unusual success, these women are sought after because women's stock as equal partners has risen. Yet, even with these favorable shifts for working women, studies show some division on the sort of work-and-home balance that young men want in their wives: A 2017 report released by the Council on Contemporary Families found that the youngest Millennial men (aged 18 to 25) favor stay-at-home wives over wives who remain employed once married. Older Millennials and Gen X’ers, on the other hand, continue in the vein of Boomers by preferring two-income families. The jury is out on why these generational differences exist, but it seems—to me—that Millennials are seeking old and new answers on how to make their marriages "divorce-proof" after witnessing the difficulties that their own parents' dual-income households had encountered. The retrograde views endorsed by some young men today more likely represent a sort of nostalgia for the 1950s bread-winner model of family life, rather than a realistic aspiration.

Add to all this the fact that Millennials, having witnessed divorce, were frightened about the fragility of marriage in ways their Boomer parents were not. Many Boomers grew up with parents who stayed married no matter what. And Boomers went on to critique the marital model that required submission by wives and permitted husbands much greater power. Criticism of traditional marriage was a central focus of the women's liberation movement, and many women and men divorced as roles and relationships heaved under clashing ideologies.

I remember the dialogue in the opening salvos of the women's liberation movements, when many women regarded marriage as a trap that allowed the replication of those patriarchal norms that their fathers, and their fathers' fathers, had presumed as a natural right. Boomer women formed "consciousness-raising groups" to rebel against a system where husbands could subjugate their wives with impunity. Women left marriages, or were left by husbands, in anger but without always having the economic wherewithal to weather the transition.

Nonetheless, many Boomers saw divorce as salvation from a bad deal, so, after marrying in their early to mid-20s (often recklessly and ambivalently, given the upheaval of gender norms and behaviors at the time), they were emotionally prepared to leave disappointing marriages.

Millennials did not have to go through the same kind of culturally chaotic period. They inherited changed gender roles but not the critique of marriage as an institution. They deferred commitment because they wanted to experience individual development and fun for longer. And they did not want to replicate the fractured households they grew up in.

Independent living had its positive and negative consequences for marriage, as serial cohabiting or dating made it harder to find spouses when people peeled off and started to wed by their early 30s. This has created a crunch for women in their mid-30s if they wanted to reserve child-bearing for marriage. Some women who wanted to marry did not, and some women who wanted children did not have them. Men who waited later did not, for the most part, have the same biological limits or dating disadvantages. Still, because later fertility can mean less fertility, childbearing for the Millennial generation has been, for the most part, reduced.

While we are in an era of greater marital stability (and, we hope, more happiness), we need be cautious about forecasting the future of divorce for the Millennials. We must take into account that Millennials marry later, and some demographers have calculated that about a quarter of all Americans will never marry. The lower divorce rate may reflect the fact that marriages happen later, or that fewer people are marrying.

Still, it looks like a new trajectory for marriage. These figures allow us to think optimistically that perhaps divorce has finally dipped in a significant and lasting way. Divorce rates had inched up from the turn of the 20th century, then zoomed upward from the late 1960s to the '80s before leveling off.

Now it seems to have taken a new direction for the first time in more than a century. The Millennials may be proving that coming to marriage a bit later in life, with less rigid roles and with more egalitarian unions, will have realized the kind of marriage that Boomers envisioned but were not always so successful at creating.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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