A recent survey conducted by Nanos Research suggests that 51 per cent of millennials age 18 to 29 are unsure about marriage. That includes 29 per cent who think marriage is outdated, full stop. And another 22 per cent aren’t sure.
In fact, all Canadians today, more than ever before, feel ambiguous about marriage. Back in 2002, only seven per cent of Canadians declared themselves neutral on the question of whether marriage is an outdated institution. Today 21 per cent do.
Canada needs solid, stable marriages now more than ever. We need Canadians who are rejuvenated in their understanding of what marriage is and what it does as a public institution. However, we can’t teach our children about a topic on which adults are themselves unsure.
The institutional understanding of marriage encapsulates a permanent arrangement for sex, parenthood, economic cooperation and intimacy. This model of marriage includes a public dimension that understands that stable family life benefits the common good.
The research shows that healthy marriages remain a public good. They provide stability and structure that allow for the development of aspirations and the flourishing of family members. They provide stability for raising children. Healthy marriages even offer increased health for the individual members physically and mentally – a growing consensus in the research shows. On the financial side, marriage is associated, unsurprisingly, with greater resources.
Certainly, marriage isn’t for everyone, and marriage isn’t a prerequisite for a successful and happy life.
Yet in following a basic life script, individuals in a prior era were offered both security and a greater chance at avoiding poverty by finishing school, getting married and having kids – in that order. Without unnecessarily hearkening back to a golden age that wasn’t – this life script allows for basic stability.
Today it’s harder to know what to do, what vocation to pursue, what relationship to solidify and make permanent. We are all adrift in a sea of endless choices. Millennials may feel this more acutely than most.
Simultaneously, the data also show that 72 per cent of millennials view marriage as a positive aspect of family life. On the face of it, this sounds inconsistent. How can three quarters of millennials view marriage as a positive aspect of family life and simultaneously have half of them question its relevancy.
Part of the reason is that millennials are less likely to conceptualize marriage as a grounding institution and are more likely to view marriage through an individual lens. Marriage is merely one option among many choices and arrangements. Privately, they hope for a happy relationship – and that might mean marriage. Publicly, they don’t view marriage as important or broadly beneficial.
As millennials are anxious about financial instability amid dead end jobs and serial contract work – sometimes after spending vast quantities of time and money on education – it might be wise to remind them of the financial benefits of marriage, too. Married couples are more likely to be financially stable. Yet a 2015 survey of millennials reported that about 60 per cent believe they would have to delay a major life event like home ownership, marriage and children because of financial pressures.
All of this considered, it’s no wonder the average age of first marriage in Canada is about 29 years old and has been slowly climbing for decades.
In spite of divorce and other relationship difficulties, marriage still matters, it’s still more stable than living together and it is still important in a number of ways that benefit the common good, our personal happiness and the state of our culture and economy. If this recent survey shows anything, it’s that all Canadians have work to do in rehabilitating marriage’s lacklustre reputation. The next generation deserves no less.
Peter Jon Mitchell is senior researcher at Cardus and author of the recently released paper Canadian Millennials and the Value of Marriage.