David Lake, 23, estimates he has dated more than 70 girls since his mission, and gone on more than twice as many dates. Comparing Lake’s dating with his dad’s is like comparing Chinese and English. Lake only knows of one girl his dad dated post-mission, and that is his mother, who was engaged at the age of 18 to his father, after seven weeks of dating.
“I could never imagine myself being ready to ask a girl to marry me in seven weeks,” Lake said.
Utah and Mormons typically marry younger and marry more than other states in the nation, and the religious emphasis on family existed ever since pioneers stepped into the Wasatch. However, the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics reported that from 2001 to 2008, the rate of marriage per thousand people in Utah declined faster than the declining national marriage rates.
Some may point the finger at Babylon, but the culprit of marrying later and marrying less may just be generational differences, according to some media, family, and sociology experts.
Call them millennials, Gen-Y, or whippersnappers, the generation born in the mid-’80s to early ’90s has unique characteristics from living in a world never experienced by their predecessors. The expansion and advancement of technology, changing perceptions of adulthood, and economic shifts that characterize this day and age were caused by everyone except the millennials, but may be the forces behind falling marriage rates of the millennial generation. And falling marriage rates may just translate into rising marriage age, which isn’t proving to be all bad, with declining divorce rates and improved perceptions of adulthood nationally and among Utahns.
Despite its distinct nature, Utah doesn’t escape national trends, according to sociology professor Steve Bahr of BYU, who has researched divorce and separation.
“We tend to be influenced by the surrounding forces,” he said.
These surrounding forces may be invisible, according to Clark Callahan, a BYU communications professor. He said connectivity may be a key to the matrimonial issue everywhere.
“Every new technology creates a social change,” Callahan said. “In terms of social support, there are so many connections these days that support is not hard to find.”
Social media, texting, Skype, and the host of other easy communication mediums allow us to stay connected on a personal level with many people. Clark said the permanent companionship of marriage, the ultimate social support, may be delayed because millennials are already getting plenty of support whenever they want it through the expansion of technology.
This provides far from all the answers, however. Sierra Camp, 21, doesn’t believe technology gives the full social sustenance that an old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation gives.
“Expansion of social media and technology gives a lot of breadth to relationships, but not a lot of depth,” she said. “When you are talking to someone face to face, you are not only receiving their language, but their body language, and you understand them better.”
Other clues lie outside the realm of technology.
Larry Nelson, a BYU family life professor who emphasizes his studies on emerging adulthood, has discovered through his research that millennials’ idea of adulthood is much different than previous conceptions of adulthood.
Before, people considered themselves adults after going through rites of passage, like marriage, having a child, or in Utah’s case, going on a mission or going through the temple.
“Young people are understanding that a piece of paper doesn’t make you an adult,” Nelson said, “whether that piece of paper is a marriage certificate, birth certificate, mission call, temple recommend, or college diploma.”
Now, Nelson said, young people are defining adulthood more through internal characteristics, like independent decision-making, accepting responsibility for your actions, or the ability to control emotions.
The results of this shifted thinking are revealing. Nelson said the research shows 70-80 percent of those ages 18 to 25 don’t consider themselves adults. Furthermore, research done by Nelson shows 75 percent of parents of emerging adults don’t think their children that age are adults. The obvious question here is how could a person who doesn’t consider him or herself an adult ever consider marriage?
With postponement of adulthood comes postponement of marriage. Nelson says there are pros and cons of delaying that adult role.
Some millennials may be postponing marriage in hopes of better preparing themselves for that big step, after having been raised in the divorce generation.
“Call it a lack of faith or whatever, but you want to make sure things are in order,” said Dillon Holm, a married BYU student.
And this order appears to be paying off. From 2000 to 2008, divorce rates in Utah and nationally fell at the same rate. In 2008, divorce rates were lower nationally and in Utah then they had been in more than 30 years.
Does this mean postponing marriage is always the best option? Nelson doesn’t think so.
“While I think some young people are being very wise and purposeful in their delaying dating and marriage, there is, for others, a real sense of narcissism,” Nelson said.
Some millennials are avoiding adulthood and marriage not to prepare for it, but to have fun. Drug and alcohol abuse, video games, and cohabitation peak at these ages, and this hasn’t proven helpful to marriage or life in general. Nelson calls this group “flounderers” and their preparation-oriented counterparts “flourishers.”
Those postponing marriage for the wrong reasons have received strong counsel from LDS Church leaders, like from Elder Richard G. Scott in a 2005 CES devotional.
“It’s marriage time. Men have the initiative, and you men should get on with it,” Scott said, who also counseled women that, “You may never have the opportunity for a suitable marriage in this life, so stop waiting and start moving.”
Floundering or not, the economic environment of today requires greater preparation for adulthood and marriage than ever before.
“Telling an 18-year-old today to go out and fend for him or herself would be like telling a 13-year-old in 1950 to go and survive,” said one demographer economist.
A high school diploma 20 years ago was usually enough to get a real job, eventually buy a house and support a family. Today, it takes more time to put oneself in a situation to be able to provide for others. And the older one is, the less mate options there are, meaning that some people will simply never marry.
David Lake is different than his father, and the fact that he isn’t married doesn’t necessarily mean he is doing something wrong. Considering the falling divorce rates and young people’s improving perception of adulthood, maybe millennials are nearing the best average age for marriage, and not regressing.