Love, American Style

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Love is in the air, but marriage must be in the water. How else to explain Americans' attraction to matrimony? According to "Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1998," a recently updated U.S. Census Bureau report released last month, about 56 percent of all American adults were married and living with their spouses last year (111 million people). Not surprisingly, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Nevada were the top five states, respectively, for marriages in 1996.

That's a pretty rosy picture of family values, even taking into consideration the downside of the report: that about 10 percent of adults (19.4 million) were "currently divorced" last year. It's the word currently that defines us: Hope springs eternal. Divorce isn't forever.

"People aspire to what they don't have," says Steve Kraus, a director at Yankelovich Partners, explaining the behavior patterns of boomers who are marrying, divorcing, and remarrying, versus Generation Xers, many of whom are holding off on making that big commitment for the first time. "Not every Gen Xer is a child of divorce," he adds, "But the eighties were their formative years, when divorce rates skyrocketed."

That's why, according to a recently released Yankelovich poll, Gen Xers -the half that aren't already hitched -are delaying marriage, as shown by the current median age at the time of first marriage: 25 years for women and 26.8 years for men in 1997. Boomers, by contrast, were marrying young: In 1970, the median age for marriage for women was 20.8 years, and for men, 23.2 years.

Yankelovich's survey of some 2,500 Gen Xers shows that those who are still single are planning to enjoy themselves, while those who are married are nesting with a vengeance. Fifty-eight percent of single Xers say their social life is a high priority, compared to only 38 percent of married Xers. Some 61 percent of singles feel it's vital to keep up on media trends, compared to 49 percent of their married friends. And when it comes to fun, 68 percent of single Xers expect to have "more fun" this year, while a mere 52 percent of married people are counting on it.

Kirsty Doig, vice president of New York City-based Youth Intelligence, hasn't found that attitude among the Gen Xers she's spoken to. "They don't feel they lose their identity by getting married, and they're not looking at marriage as an end to their fun," she says.

Gen Xers, she adds, felt abandoned as they grew up. "They were latch-key kids, many were the children of divorce, and the media told them they were stupid," Doig says. "So they turned to their peers for support."

Nationally, there is nearly one divorce for every two marriages, according to census data from 1996, the most current year available. Preliminary figures from the Monthly Vital Statistics Report for the first seven months of 1998 don't indicate a major shift in that trend.

But on average, Americans are staying married longer. The median duration of marriages ending in divorce has lengthened-from 6.7 years in 1970 to 7.2 years in 1990, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

And we're older when we finally call it quits. The median age at divorce for men was 35.9 years in 1990, or 2.7 years older than in 1970. Women's median age at the time of their divorce in 1990 was 33.2, up 3.4 years from 1970.

The rate of remarriage has slowed, as well. In 1970, 12.3 percent of divorced women and 20.5 percent of divorced men remarried. By 1990, just 7.6 percent of divorced women and 10.6 percent of divorced men were heading back to the altar.

Still, the Census Bureau is predicting an upswing in Gen X marriages by 2010. About half of them are married now, and census projections indicate about two-thirds will be hitched by 2001, when the true millennium rolls around. By 2010, 85 percent will be settling down.

Tradition with a twist But settling down to what? Traditional family values, on their own terms. Something edgier, with more irony than their parents. "They want to do traditional family things, like spend time on the family photo album," Kraus notes. "But instead of putting the pictures in a book, they'll scan them into their computers and put them on a Web site."

Youth Intelligence's Doig agrees. "Marriage isn't a locked jail to Gen Xers," she says. "They may not be more committed to it than their parents, but they're redefining it for themselves." If, for example, Gen Xers wish to stay at home with their children, they'll find ways to telecommute or jobs that will allow them to share the responsibility.

Both Doig and Kraus use the word nostalgic to describe Xers' view of hearth and home. The Xers, though, are nostalgic for the childhood that boomers supposedly had. It's informed their model for the perfect, traditional marriage.

"The stereotypical boomer grew up watching Leave It To Beaver," says Kraus. "The stereotypical Gen Xer grew up watching The Brady Bunch. Their impression of family life was, 'Hey, let's go find a bunch of strangers to live with us.'" It's a wonder they want to get married at all.

Taking it further: Yankelovich Partners, Norwalk, CT (203) 846-0100; Youth Intelligence, New York, NY (212) 982-5428. U.S. County map by CACI Marketing Systems, Arlington, VA (800) 292-CACI.

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