A tectonic demographic shift is happening before our eyes that is, by almost all accounts, unprecedented and unsustainable. Young people are postponing marriage and parenthood in such large numbers that contemporary society may be failing to form the quantity and quality of families that will allow society to regenerate and sustain itself, let alone grow.
We have argued in the past that culture plays a major role in weakening contemporary commitment to marriage. But economics is also playing a role in when and how young adults decide to marry and have children.
In today's Deseret News, Lois Collins carefully examines some of the reasons young people are delaying marriage. Poor job opportunities for young men contribute to a sense of marital and parental inadequacy. Unrealistic expectations about the kind of lifestyle required prior to marriage are also playing a role. But clearly, economic uncertainty and pessimism cloud how to make major life decisions such as marriage.
In a comprehensive study about these trends called "The Rise of Post-Familialism," demographer Joel Kotkin writes, "The current weak global economy ... also threatens to further slow family formation. Child-rearing requires a strong hope that life will be better for the next generation. The rising cost of urban living, the declining number of well-paying jobs, and the onset of the global financial crisis has engendered growing pessimism."
So, although a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of "millennials" (those born after 1983) indicated that their two highest aspirations were to be good parents and have a successful marriage, more recent surveys by Pew and by Generation Opportunity find that a plurality of millennials are consciously delaying marriage and parenthood because of the weak economy.
What is so unfortunate and ironic about this increasing risk-aversion to marriage is that committed marriage itself appears to be the best way for young people to minimize their risks in a tough economy. Marriage creates immediate economies of scale. Joint decision-making and counsel in managing finances reduces impulsivity and fosters frugality. And although frugal living requires effort, if done with an attitude of mutual sacrifice and commitment, it tends to strengthen rather than tax marital bonds.
The innate desire to marry and raise children has not waned. What has waned is clear cultural commitment to marriage as the most effective institution for ensuring prosperity and refining adults, as well as for nurturing children and teaching responsibility. Increased social acceptance of cohabitation and divorce has contributed to inherently unstable living arrangements.
What has also waned is the kind of responsible economic policy that might generate cautious, long-term optimism. As intergenerational burdens mount and public debt explodes, so do the realistic hopes of a generation (or two) left to pay the overdue bills of profligate baby boomers.
Our children deserve to live out their heartfelt aspirations to marry and raise children. Postponed marriage and parenthood, especially when so much of our society is aging, create an economically unsustainable demography. For the happiness of our children and the long-term prosperity of our society, we must do more to encourage early commitment to family formation. Policies that promote private sector growth, reduce public debt and generate economic optimism are an important part of that encouragement.