Pop star Miley Cyrus just announced her engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth. Some say that Miley is too young to get married as a 19-year-old. But is it possible that she reflects millennials’ transforming views on marriage? Or is she too young to marry?
Yes and no. Like previous generations, millennials prize marriage and parenthood over career and financial success like older generations. But we marry and have children at older ages, and not necessarily as a prerequisite for parenthood. We also are more tolerant of diverse marriage and parenting habits, whether gay marriage or single working mothers. Still, these trends depend on the region and ethnicity.
We are marrying later, according to a comprehensive study of millennials by the Pew Research Center. Now, the median age of marriage for men is 28 and for women is 26. Only 23% of millennials are currently married, compared to 43% of the Silent generation (1925-1945), 52% of Baby Boomers and 67% of Gen Xers at the same ages. The marriage age has been escalating for decades, and one hypothesis suggests that Recession-era millennials are postponing marriage to secure their careers or to delay adulthood in a difficult job market.
But postponing marriage does not mean that we live alone. We are more likely to cohabit with our partners without marrying or live with other family members than our parents did.
Later marriage also does not mean that we have fewer kids — in fact, millennials have begun to break the link between marriage and parenthood. While only one-quarter of us are currently spouses, one-third are currently parents. Indeed, our generation prioritizes “being a good parent” at 52% over “having a successful marriage” at 30%, a gap that reflects separation between the two milestones. Gen X, the last generation, saw a smaller gap between the two, with parenthood at 42% and marriage at 35%. What explains the reduced number of married-with-children households? It’s unclear why this is happening, but it’s not because of more single-person households, which have been at a constant rate for the past two generations.
The breakage may just reflect how we’re slightly more tolerant of non-traditional marriage and parenting habits: Whether single mothers, more cohabitation, more working young mothers, more interracial marriage or more gay couples raising children, we tend to think of these trends as good at higher rates — albeit, not with especially high objectively speaking — than previous generations did. Ironically, our reaction to Cyrus’ engagement reflects how our tolerance doesn’t seem to extend to traditional marriage practices.
To be sure, the portrait gets more complex if you look by region, ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation. The median age of marriage for men in Washington, D.C., is 32, but the median in Idaho is 25. Whites are more likely to prioritize marriage and parenthood than nonwhites. Women approve of gay marriage more than men. Republicans disapprove of cohabitation more than Democrats.
Cyrus’ early engagement is actually bucking the trend. In fact, Cyrus falls into a more traditional camp. Is it a good thing? For her, maybe — Recession-era insecurity about career and adulthood seem to be irrelevant for the superstar who also sees herself as a sexier, or more adult, woman. Plus, we really have no clue about her private relationship with Hemsworth. Most young adults, however, should not, and probably will not, follow her example. We should marry when we're ready to commit to one person. But postponing marriage doesn't preclude parenthood, cohabitation, or other forms of commitment along the way, and it's good that we tolerate more diverse marital habits.