Life, delayed: Couples putting off marriage due to economy, changing views

Published: Saturday, Nov. 24 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Nick and Elizabeth Dall, 26 and 25, waited to get married until they figured they'd be able to make ends meet pretty well, but it's still challenging. An increasing number of young couples are putting off marriage because of the job market and economic factors.

Family Photo, courtest of Elizabeth Dall

SALT LAKE CITY — Jessica Greenway, 23, of Seattle, Wash., doesn't see a wedding in her near future, though she and longtime boyfriend Rick Holland, 25, are serious about marrying. Eventually. He's in school and they both work so they can afford to be together some day, she said. When? She's not certain.

They don't feel ready.

Couples have long felt less than ready for marriage, but delaying because of financial fear is relatively new. Marriage used to be a foundation for adult life, a base from which a couple would launch into work, start a family and try to carve a niche in a middle-class lifestyle. Now, young people increasingly delay marriage or having a baby until they feel they've achieved some success. Marriage has moved from first step to capstone, experts say, against a backdrop of shifting economic and societal standards. Newlyweds and first-time parents are older. But the numbers alone, demographers warn, don't capture the nuance of complicated and related decisions that include personal choice, economics, education and expectations.

As trends shift, consider oddly contradictory examples experts provided the Deseret News: People have so much respect for marriage that they choose not to do it, instead cohabiting. Or, young adults are shelving dreams of marriage because of the economy — along with optimism about their futures.

New reality?

Meeting, falling in love and deciding to start the adventure of an adult life together even on a shoestring is becoming an outdated progression.

"If you look at people today, couples assume they need a middle-class lifestyle going into marriage. They are reluctant to get married without having that middle-class lifestyle well in hand or at least just around the corner," said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

The economy is a "major drag" on marriage and starting a family, he said. "We have seen marriage rates come down more since the Great Recession than prior to it, although it's also part and parcel of a larger secular trend" that has seen more cohabiting. But that's not the whole story. "Plenty of couples are postponing marriage but not cohabiting."

In a survey by Generation Opportunity in July, 84 percent of young people 18-29 tabled a major life change or purchase they had planned, citing the economy. Of those, 23 percent put aside plans to marry and 31 percent put off having children.

"The No. 1 issue defining this generation is lack of full-time, meaningful jobs and economic opportunities overall," said Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a politically neutral nonprofit that engages millennials. Its recent poll found that "the once unshakable sense of optimism" that has marked young adulthood has "virtually disappeared."

Their new reality, he said, is "a series of part-time jobs, periods of unemployment or settling for jobs below their education or skill level — and they know they're settling." He believes if more opportunities aren't made for young adults, nothing less than America's global competitiveness is at stake. It's not just a matter of what's happening to family structure, though that has wider ramifications than people recognize, too, he said.

Stalled

"When you start to put the data points together, a talented generation is being impacted at the point of entry-level job skills," Conway said, adding that the progression of work, getting married, buying a home, starting a family "is stalled."

Those actions that aren't occurring "drive family and culture and the economy. It's a vicious cycle from an economic standpoint," Conway said. For example, families formed later have fewer children. That impacts how many workers will be available to financially support or aid an aging society. Everything interconnects.

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