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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Young Adults Regard Marriage, Parenthood and a Good Spouse

Americans in all age groups think the top three qualities of a marriage partner are “being a good parent, being caring and compassionate, and putting one’s family before anything else,” according to a report March 9 from the Pew Research Center. Among the nation’s newest adults, often called “millennials,” more than 90 percent rank being a good parent as the top quality of a good spouse.

The good news in this report may well be located in the value today’s young adults place on parenthood. What may perplex or disappoint some, however, are the indicators that young people between the ages of 19 and 29 do not value marriage as highly as parenthood.

Titled “For Millennials, Parenthood Trumps Marriage,” the report analyzes recent research, particularly a survey the Pew Center conducted in October 2010.

Millennials, like the age groups that preceded them – Generation X, the baby boomers – are complex and do not prove easy to pigeonhole. “Even though their generation has been slow to marry and have children, most millennials look forward to doing both,” according to the Pew report. Yet, it says, “millennials are less likely than older generations to link marriage with parenthood.”

The number of millennials who think it is “a bad thing for society” when children are raised by unmarried couples or single mothers has declined significantly compared with adults more than 30 years of age. Millennials, along with their immediate predecessors, Generation X, “are less likely than older generations to say that a child needs a home with both a father and a mother present to grow up happily,” says the Pew report. A “slim majority” of millennials and Gen Xers agree that this is needed.

Nonetheless (and just to keep things sufficiently complicated), the attitude among 75 percent of millennials is that raising a family “is easier to do as a married person than as a single person.”

Curiously, when it comes to some other important life goals, millennials do not tend to accord marriage the status of an essential. “For example, 67 percent of millennials say that happiness is not related to whether you are single or married, and 61 percent say that social status is irrelevant to marital status.”

Naturally, millennials do not all think alike. Not surprisingly, then, a minority in this age group actually views marriage as “preferable to being single” in their quest of happiness.

One thing many who study contemporary marriage would like to understand better is whether, and how, the views of marriage held by today’s young adults were influenced by their parents’ marital status. “Millennials are less likely than their elders to have grown up in intact families,” the Pew center notes. Some 63 percent of millennials say their parents were married, a large decrease from the 76 percent of Generation X and 83 percent of baby boomers whose parents were married.

I was a little surprised that millennials tended to value marriage at about the same rate, whether or not their parents were married, unmarried or divorced – something that was not the case among Gen Xers, whose attitudes appear to have been more strongly influenced by their parents’ marital status.

However, the percentage of millennials willing to call marriage “one of the most important things in life” seems rather low. Just 27 percent of those whose parents were not married and 32 percent of those whose parents were married rated marriage that highly. About half of millennials say that being a good parent is “one of the most important things in life,” regardless of their parents’ marital status.

With the emergence of each new generation of young adults, scholars set to work, inquiring how young people think and why they think that way. It is a complex, ongoing task – of interest, in part, because of what it might predict about the attitudes of society’s future families and leaders (millennials at age 50 or so).

Certainly, it is hard to pin down an entire generation. If anything, I always look upon these studies as a caution against making assumptions about young people and an encouragement to keep trying to understand them better.

In conclusion, let me return to my beginning – to the list of qualities considered important by millennials in a spouse. In addition to being a good parent, a caring, compassionate person and putting one’s family first, many more millennials than earlier generations want a spouse who is well educated.

More than half of millennial men (52 percent) think that being well educated is a very important quality “for a good wife,” though less than half of millennial women judge a good education quite so highly in a husband.

What may astonish many of the millennials’ parents is what the Pew Center’s report says about the importance of finding a spouse who can provide a good income.

According to the report, millennial men placed “providing a good income” at the bottom of their list of qualities a good wife should have. “Just 15 percent of young men think it is very important for a good wife to have that quality.” Moreover, “fewer than half” of millennial women think that providing a good income is an important quality of a good spouse.

Apparently, this is not quite the same as believing that earning power is unimportant. The Pew Center says the view still is shared “across all generations” that “it is important for a man to be able to support a family financially.”

Finally, here is a finding to please some young men still considering marriage: For millennial women, being “good at household chores” is located at the bottom of the list of qualities a good husband needs, with just 22 percent of the women calling this “very important.”