Ryan K. has searched all his life for his soul mate, and when he finally finds her, he will romantically propose marriage, rather than living together. He will have sex with his bride for the first time on their wedding night. He has no respect for women who sleep around. But that doesn't stop him from wearing Between the Sheets cologne.
On a recent date with a potential mate, Ryan (cologne liberally applied) wore a suit and took Bachelorette No. 1 on a traditional night out-dinner and a play. He almost bought her flowers, but then thought twice about it, figuring it would be awkward for her to lug a bouquet around all night. When he's feeling a bit more adventurous, he might take a date to play miniature golf or even go bowling.
Though he fits the profile of the classic male of the 1950s, Ryan is not from the Ozzie-and-Harriet generation.
He is a 19-year-old snowboarder from Vail, Colorado, a college freshman majoring in business at Georgetown University who is looking for love in all the right places. And in many ways, he's more idealistic than his baby boomer parents ever were, at least when it comes to matters of the heart-and more conservative, too. Picture Eisenhower, but with a pierced eyebrow.
"The soul mate thing is so huge," Ryan says. "I still believe there's one person out there that you're meant for. It sounds naive. But this generation kind of has a trust in fate. When I talked to my mom about it, she told me she could have married seven or eight different people, that my father was the best choice at the time. Not 'He was my true love.' I was like, 'Oh, thanks.'"
With Ryan and his cohorts in mind, market analysts are predicting a values shift for Gen Y lovers-whose dating, mating, and child-rearing habits may be more like those of their grandparents than like the cast of Melrose Place.
"One of the macro-trends we're seeing is neotraditionalism," says Kirsty Doig, vice president of Youth Intelligence, a market research and trend forecasting group based in New York City. "These kids are fed up with the superficialities of life. They have not had a lot of stability in their lives. It's a backlash, a return to tradition and ritual. And that includes marriage. It's all about finding 'the right one'-as opposed to sleeping around."
Though census data has yet to reflect the trend-marriage and childbearing have continued to occur at later ages, and living together is still on the rise-the pundits all agree: We're headed for a second coming of family values. And with it, boosted sales of white wedding gowns, subscriptions to bridal magazines, and perhaps a future surge in sales of Pampers.
"This generation is very much into the spirituality of love," says Doig. "They're much more optimistic than Generation X...They know they'll find their soul mate."
Last year, when asked if they would get married if they found the right person, 80.5 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds answered a resounding "Yes!" Only 69 percent of Gen X-the 25-to-34-year-olds-held the same romantic view, according to the General Social Survey of the University of Chicago.
Rather than base their lives on people like Sylvester Stallone-whose daughter was nine months old when he and mom, Jennifer Flavin, wed in 1997-Generation Ys are more likely to follow the example set by young Macaulay Culkin, the Home Alone star raised in a turbulent, common-law marriage, who tied the knot with his 17-year-old girlfriend last year.
People like Culkin-and even snowboarding business majors like Ryan-are what marketing consultant Liz Nickles of Chicago-based Nickles & Ashcraft calls the early adopters: opinion and style leaders who set the trends. "They don't show up on the government charts," she admits, "but the rest of the population follows them."
Nickles, who's been conducting surveys with partner Laurie Ashcraft for the past 18 years, predicts a surge in teen marriage and a trend toward bigger families, whether because of the threat of AIDS or simply as a rebellion against what their free-lovin', baby boomer parents did in the '60s. Or perhaps more importantly, what Mom and Dad did in the '80s.
"[Gen Y's] role models were mothers focused on their careers," says Nickles. "But today you can have a career and your first priority can still be your home. For these young women, their heart is in the home."
In their latest survey, "The New Millennium Woman," Nickles and Ashcraft found that 82 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds thought motherhood was the most important job in the world, compared to 72 percent in the more jaded 25-to-34-year-old Gen X category.
Sociologist Linda Waite, codirector of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago, says that because children usually rebel against their parents, it makes sense that Generation Y may get hitched earlier. "Part of the women's movement," she explains, "was involved in trying to make sure women weren't trapped in bad marriages. Certainly some marriages are bad, but marriage has its advantages, too."
Perhaps the younger set knows instinctually what Waite has spent years researching-that married people are much more healthy psychologically and physically than those who are just living together. For women, according to Waite's forthcoming book, The Case for Marriage (Harvard University Press), the state of matrimony improves their access to health insurance, provides safer places to live, and even boosts their endocrine and immune systems. Men reap the benefits as well, with improved careers and extended life spans.
It's not only in the outside world that Waite sees changes. "My 20-year-old daughter won't live with her boyfriend," says Waite, laughing. "She's talking about marrying him."
Young women who return to more traditional ways in the new millennium will do so on their own terms, however. Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Bride's, says there's been a definite swing toward traditional weddings: young women are buying beautiful long gowns, exchanging time-honored vows, and gathering family and friends to break bread. Eighty percent of brides are tossing their garters, 78 percent are walked down the aisle by Daddy, and almost all brides expect to be carried across the threshold, Bratten reports.
"What has changed, though, is who's paying for the wedding," she adds. "Nearly 30 percent of couples pay for their own wedding. And many couples plan it together, rather than just the bride and her mother. As a result, we're seeing more personalized weddings, couples making it different and unique, whether that's adding a few lines to the traditional vows or taking 30 of your closest friends and family members to Tuscany for the ceremony."
That idea-taking tradition and running with it-will spill over into child-rearing as well, experts say. "For these young women, it's not so much doing it all," says Nickles "but rather selecting certain elements and crafting your lifestyle. This generation leaves behind words like 'juggling.' For instance, they'll have that career, but they'll work from home instead."
Because of the trend toward early coupling, whether married or living together, companies like Maytag and Black and Decker need to pay heed, market researchers say.
"The makers of major appliances are ignoring that generation," according to David Morrison, president of TwentySomething Inc., a strategic planning and market research firm that works with such Fortune 500 companies as General Motors, Coca-Cola, and AT&T. "They have to stop thinking of X and Y as IKEA patrons and more as Whirlpool customers."
Advertisers, however, would be wise to stay away from old-fashioned pitches, Morrison warns. Even though they believe in marriage and having babies, Gen Yers won't respond to ads featuring "the husband, wife, two kids, and the white picket fence," says Morrison. "You do that and you're going to hit barriers. Unless you're doing it tongue-in-cheek."
Though they're arriving at the same conclusions their grandparents did-find a life partner and stick with them-Gen Y is savvier and, in some ways, much more tolerant than the generations that came before it, experts say. Marriage can apply to men with men, and women with women. Cross-cultural and interracial unions are not taboo, but in fashion. In other words, the kids may like tradition, but they are hardly traditional.
The perfect prototype for the new generation, says Morrison, is the Volkswagen commercial-what he calls the "Da da da" ad-in which the heroes, a young black man and a young white man are driving down the street in their VW. They stop to pick up a discarded chair, place it in the back seat and then, without exchanging a bit of dialog, realize the chair has a terrible odor and/or bad vibe, and dump it back on the street. It's all backed up with a suitably enigmatic soundtrack, "Da da da," sung by a band called Trio.
"Are these guys gay? Are they straight?" asks Morrison. "No one really cares. The commercial works."
Young people may be more mature and careful about their life choices, whether they're looking for a sofa or shopping for a partner, but not because they're under pressure from their parents, says Morrison; they're under pressure from the world at large. "These young people are still sexually active but they're terrified of having multiple partners," Morrison says. "They have more of the fear of God in them. Having a lasting partner," he says, "guarantees some safety."
According to the General Social Survey, young people's attitudes toward sex have certainly become more conservative over the past two decades, especially compared to their elders' views. In 1972, a mere 10.4 percent of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed said it was "always wrong" to have sex before marriage. Over the years, those numbers have shifted slowly but surely. Last year, they more than doubled: 23.3 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds believed sex was almost always wrong before marriage.
These days it's Mom and Dad who say sex before marriage isn't so evil. Back in 1972, only 19.1 percent of 45-to-54-year-olds believed it was okay to have sex before marriage. But last year, the number grew to a whopping 48.5 percent. Then again, who listens to Mom and Dad?
In 1988, 83.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds said they had been sexually active. By 1998, that number had dropped to 76.6 percent. Of those involved romantically, 31.7 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds lived together in 1996. In just two years, that number dropped over 10 percentage points, to 21.6 percent.
Numbers don't speak as loudly as real voices, though. Stacey H., a 22-year-old legal assistant/writer/actress living in New York City, says she will never live with a boyfriend-based simply on the examples set by her peers.
"I've decided I would never live out of wedlock," says Stacey. "I've seen too many instances where the relationship's soured. Living together takes the specialness out of it. My friends who live together go through all the problems of a marriage, but they don't have the joy of being married. One of my friends just told me straight, 'Don't do it.' And I won't. For sure, I would not live with a guy."
Like other women her age, Stacey says she plans on getting married only once. But singling out that perfect man has not been easy. Ah, for the good old days of cotillions, socials, and fancy-dress balls.
"I pity our times," says Stacey, who despises meeting guys in bars. "We don't have big balls to go to with big dresses. You can't be classy about meeting someone these days."
Some of Stacey's friends have resorted to nontraditional means, like frequenting a bar called Drip-a matchmaking establishment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where patrons fill out forms, can read each other's "stats," and are matched up by the bartender on request. On a recent Friday night outside Drip, a young twentysomething could be overheard making small talk with her supposed match: "Let's see. I'll try and summarize my whole life in a few sentences," she said, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Morrison says coffee bars are the latest trend in dating safety. "A coffee bar allows you to hear the other person without an 80-decibel band blaring behind you," he says. "You may get a caffeine rush, but because there's no alcohol, you're not becoming impaired." The coffee rendezvous also allows daters to cut short the date if it's not going well, or continue on to the more traditional dinner and a movie if things are looking up.
Because of the growing popularity of the coffee bar dating trend, many of them have even morphed back into restaurants, serving food and playing light music in the background, says Morrison. Some even serve liquor. "You can get a Guinness in some coffee bars, which brings us right back to the old-fashioned pub," he says, laughing.
Another retro trend in dating is traveling in groups of four, six or ten friends. "People are doing things like swing dancing or ballroom dancing," says Morrison.
More and more common are Blockbuster nights, involving several friends "hooking up" in front of the television set.
In some cases, employers are picking up on dating desperation and are arranging employee nights for some of their harder workers-those who work 20-hour days and can't get out to meet that perfect someone.
"Employers even encourage you to bring a friend," says Morrison. "There's cross-pollinating, if you will, with other employees out there."
Doig suggests that some young people are meeting each other in church-how's that for tradition? "This is a very spiritual group, remember," she says.
Then, of course, there is finding love online, a phenomenon that continues to grow, particularly for Gen Y. "As hokey as they are, those chat rooms are real places, filled with real people," says Morrison. "It's a place to share your passions. It would take you 1,000 bars -if you're lucky-to find that person you can find online."
In 1996, America Online handled a few hundred personal ads on Love@AOL for Valentine's Day. Today they have more than 125,000 ads year round. Of those, 23,000 come from people between the ages of 21 to 25. The 18-to-20-year-olds come in at a close second, with about 20,000.
"The younger generation is very comfortable with computers," says AOL's Bill Schreiner, who calls himself the CEO of Love and was hired to develop and oversee Love@AOL two years ago. "They've been on mom and dad's computer since they were 10 years old." Schreiner comparesonline chatting with the long telephone conversations of the early 1960s teenager.
"To my parents, the phone was a thing on which you called somebody briefly for a meeting or to exchange quick information," he says. "But for the younger generation, it was a means of communication. We stayed on the phone for hours. Well, that's the same thing for these kids-the computer is a living form of communication."
Unlike the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romance in You've Got Mail, Gen Y singles may meet someone through a personal ad, but then they connect in a chat room. Schreiner says that experienced chatters know within the first five minutes whether the other person qualifies as potential soul mate material. "The greatest pursuit of all time is the pursuit of the love of your life," explains Schreiner. "Imagine the number of people you can contact online in three or four hours?"
Once onliners hook up through e-mail love letters and online chats, they generally "go to voice." Translation: they resort to old-fashioned methods and have a telephone conversation. Then, if all goes well, the meeting takes place. In chat room speak, that's F2F-or Face to Face. Hopefully, the online courtship will culminate in the Cyber Vows chat room, where people "get married" online by a "love doctor." People invite 20 of their closest friends and, after the hour-long "ceremony," open the chat room to their guests. It's a reception for the new millennium.
Schreiner says it certainly won't replace more traditional weddings. "But some people use it as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, or as an addendum to the real wedding."
College professor Richard Booth, author of Romancing the Net, a book about finding love online, says the trend will continue to grow, but controls need to be stricter for online searches to be more successful-and safer. The biggest problem online is misrepresentation: sending fake photos or telling lies, he says.
"We're not that far away from chat sessions where you will be able to see the person," says Booth. "It will change the nature of online dating, but it will make it more useful in the long run."
And it will help the younger generation do what the generation before them and the generation before that may have found impossible: finding that one true love through accelerated-yet fairly safe-trial and error.
"In the '70s, people were like bees, wanting to get a little nectar from every flower in the garden. But this generation seems more concerned with finding that one man, one woman," says Schreiner. "And, you know, I gotta say, it's kind of cool."