When Will Wedding Bells Ring for Adult Children?

A recent TV commercial shows a young man lounging at a pool party and vowing, “I am never getting married.” Next scene: an engagement ring. Then he and his wife are on a plane seated near a bawling baby. “We are never having children,” he says. Next scene: the delivery room. The commercial proceeds through his protests against — and then acceptance — of a suburban home, a minivan and baby number two.

HiResThe commercial echoes the thoughts of many boomer parents. It’s been well documented that the 20s are a period of “emerging adulthood,” but when are millennials going to emerge from that cocoon? The average age of marriage — 27 for women and 29 for men — is at a historic high and continues to rise.

As parents we’re not supposed to pry and ask pointed questions such as, “Are you ever getting married?” So we turned to some experts to investigate why so many of our children are putting off marriage and other milestones. The aptly named report “Knot Yet” looked at the economic and cultural changes that have led to these delays. We recently chatted with one of the report’s authors, Kay Hymowitz, who has written extensively on millennial issues.

Many boomers met their mates in college and walked down the aisle soon after, using marriage as a building block for their lives. Not so with millennials, who regard marriage as a “capstone,” an event that comes after they’ve checked off various achievements. “Most are delaying marriage because these days you need a lot more education to get a good job,” Hymowitz said. “Then, in terms of a career it’s a lot easier to get your foot on the bottom rung when you don’t have responsibilities to anyone else or worry about someone else’s schedule.”

Women, in particular, gain an economic benefit by staying single, according to “Knot Yet.” College-educated women who wait until 30 or later to marry gain a premium of $18,152 annually.

Beyond the economics, several cultural changes have occurred over the last decades. Both men and women have become so career focused that they are not looking for a life partner in college. After graduation, this “bright lights, big city generation” flocks to urban areas where they enjoy a sex-and-the-city social life. That lifestyle presents so many possible romantic options, most are reluctant to settle on just one significant other. And if they do, they often end up living together, putting off a long-term commitment.

In her 2011 book, Manning Up, Hymowitz expressed concern that young men were enjoying this lifestyle so much that they might never grow up. She was relieved to find that many educated young men do have a plan, although they often don’t articulate it. “They expect the early and mid-20s to be time of career development and fun in the city, and then in the late 20s and early 30s will settle down,” she said. And while women also like that single lifestyle, Hymowitz added, “Somewhere in the late 20s it gets old and the biological clock starts. Women know on some level they don’t have forever.”

It’s almost like a subconscious signal sounds in the late 20s and millennials suddenly start considering marriage. As one 32-year-old journalist told me: “At 29, I didn’t know anyone married. Now everyone I know is either married or engaged.” It turns out that 30 is the new 20, at least when it comes to marriage.

After saying “I do,” a house and kids? Maybe. We’ll look at the timing of those life events in the coming weeks.

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond. 

Photo: lenm/iStock