alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

Generation X Gets Married

Not to cite Seinfeld, but let us consider the show's season finale, in which George's fiancee, Susan, drops dead, poisoned by the adhesive strip on the envelopes for her wedding invitations. As his fiancee is buried, George breathes a long, shuddering sigh of relief: he realizes, as we all do, that she was the serpent in the garden.There was nothing identifiably wrong with Susan, but she was always a little bit of a Yoko figure, a presence that began as vaguely threatening and became downright sinister. The marriage, had it taken place, would have sent the show reeling into a different time slot. No one on prime time gets married, with the exception of Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser, and, anyway, they seem awfully tense most of the time.In life, as on television, marriage just doesn't get the ratings. Although we are still getting married -- 91 percent of Americans do before they die -- we are getting married later than ever. The median age at first marriage for women is 24.5 and for men 26.7 -- the highest figures since the census started taking marriage statistics. In 1960, only 11 percent of women emerged from their 20s single. By 1993, that number had risen to 33 percent. An expected period of protracted singleness is reflected in our spending, our pop culture, our career choices.We are a generation of confirmed bachelors. "Just being friends does simplify life," muses the narrator of Douglas Coupland's Generation X. It does simplify life, in fact, until you want to get married. Right about then, things get complicated.Why not?There was a time when it was normal to get married. In 1960, the median age for women at first marriage was 20.3 and for men it was 22.8. John Updike's 1960s suburbia was populated by couples who married thoughtlessly, breathlessly, in their early 20s, tumbling out of their graduation gowns and into mortgage agreements."Ken appeared, was taller than she, wanted her, was acceptable and was accepted on all sides," Updike writes in Couples, his classic chronicle of young marriedness. "She was graduated and married in June of 1956.""Their courtship passed as something instantly forgotten, like an enchantment, or a mistake," he writes of another pair. "Her father, a wise-smiling man in a tailored gray suit, failed to disapprove.... The Hanemas' first child, a daughter, was born nine months after the wedding night."Thus, in two sentences, it was done. Marriage was the obvious next step, and they were no more hesitant about changing their lifestyles than 16-year-olds with new drivers' licenses are hesitant to drive. Angst didn't really enter into it in those days. We were driven by society toward the institution that is its fundamental unit. It was a time of unambiguous prosperity: there were jobs, and young Americans were chafing at the bit to begin their real lives.In those days, people expected to marry before they finished growing up; marriage, it seemed, would help them do it. Children came early and Updike's couples -- the prosperous ones -- emerged into the public world of poker clubs, dinner dances, touch football, beach volleyball, Greek-dancing parties and half-illicit infidelity. The decisive dramas of their lives took place when they were coupled."What was the hurry?" wonders Ben Bradlee in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, of his marriage at 20 during World War II. "What convinced either one of us that marriage would resolve any of the uncertainties we dared not admit to, much less face? Was there some vaguely glamorous, vaguely patriotic sense that marriage would make each life more meaningful? Who knows?"Who cared? That was marriage in those days: the primal drive, the thing to do.Why bother?Thirty years later, we have left the age of Couples and entered the age of Friends. Nothing in the world rushes us toward marriage, except, perhaps, exhaustion. A range of different forces slow us down. Witness a couple we'll call Henry and Eve, a writer and a filmmaker living in New York. For them, getting engaged was hard enough. Then they had to explain it to their friends. That was harder.Henry: "In New York, it's definitely out of fashion.... It was just a question of why I would want to do it. People feel like the institution is discriminatory [against gay people]. That was one of our main problems."Eve: "I knew I would have trouble talking about it. I knew it was going to create waves in my group of friends. In one group, they were definitely saying, 'My God, I can't believe this.' As if it would be the real end to an age."Mind you, this is no shotgun wedding. Eve and Henry are both 28, and have been living together for several years. Their doubts about marriage -- whether they're ready, whether it will hurt their friendships, whether it will change their lifestyle, whether it's necessary at all -- are common among members of the generation formerly known as X.We don't marry, we date; we date to the point of collapse, through relationships that come with all the perquisites of marriage and receive the scrutiny of marriage and end in breakups that amount to mini-divorces. Only a third of Americans in their 20s marry before living with their partner, according to the 1994 survey Sex in America. We hold, as cultural critic David Lipsky puts it, "a wide casting call and an extensive audition period."As a result, the step into legal union sometimes comes off as downright exotic. At 24, Jeannie Sclafani Rhee is keenly aware that she is a statistical anomaly. She was married -- to her own astonishment -- to her college boyfriend at 23, and noticed, almost immediately, that her peers started treating her differently."They think I'm an oddity, as if marriage is something for old people and their mothers and fathers," she says. Everyone assumed I wouldn't want to go out after work. After a while, I confronted them and said, 'I am not a space alien.'""We had a lot of explaining to do," agrees her husband, Chris Sclafani Rhee, also 24. "My parents -- I don't think they disapproved, but they were concerned, which is ironic, because they got married at exactly the same age."Throughout the process, both Jeannie and Chris sustained a deep ambivalence, not about each other but about the ceremony. The wedding -- with its giving-away-the-bride symbolism -- was the subject of more than a little close analysis."People really did not take it well, the whole wedding bit. Someone really did confront me with that," she says. "Our marriage was a horrifically personal and political affair. We even had two male flower children because we didn't want to buy into this heterosexist tradition. Of course," she adds, "we ended up alienating everyone."There's an uncertainty here that would have struck Updike's couples as neurotic, a kind of paralytic tentativeness. Eve fielded her friends' questions like a professional, but at the end of the day she still harbors her own. "I still don't have a satisfying answer to the question 'Why marry?'COOL SKEPTICISMWe are, as a group, overwhelmingly gun-shy about relationships. One explanation seems relatively simple; today's twentysomethings grew up during a period of unprecedented domestic entropy. The US divorce rate, which had been steady at about four percent for decades, doubled between 1965 and 1975. Divorce is so much a part of our vocabulary as a generation that one young newlywed described the process of planning her wedding, with its financial and personal compromises, as "just like a custody battle." As 28-year-old writer Nathaniel Wice puts it, "there isn't one of us who isn't shell-shocked."Renee Frengut, a generational analyst with Market Insights, Inc., says children of divorce represent a fundamentally different type from the waves that came before them. Since so many of them suffered so much as children, young people today tend to look at marriage with a cool skepticism."You're the first generation to start out with a big question mark: will it last?" says Frengut. "It's as if you're going into a rite of passage with the hope of not becoming a statistic."But the issues go beyond divorce. Two-career households are less a bold choice now than a simple fact of life and interfaith marriages are much more common than in the past. Even children of intact marriages feel genuine bafflement at the approach of marriage, as if they are the first group of people ever to try it.In a sense -- given the absence of useful precedents -- they are. When Robert Watts Thornburg, the dean of Morse Chapel at Boston University, asks engaged couples whether their parents had a good marriage, about a third say yes. When he asks them if they want a similar marriage, only one in 10 agree."The first quality I see [in newlyweds today] is a lack of models," he says. "Especially important are matches between two religions, or two cultures, or two different careers. The musician to the businessman -- boy, there's no par on that course."Indeed, couples getting married have a lot of inventing ahead of them. With their egalitarian ideas, young people today bring extremely high expectations to the altar, says Frances Goldsheider, a professor of sociology at Brown University. The children of the sexual revolution were brought up expecting an equal division of labor, but they tended to learn this lesson by incantation rather than by example. Putting it into practice is a whole new ball game."The kind of people I work with are puzzled by marriage," she says, "because they know they've rejected certain old kinds of marriage, but they don't know what's going to take its place. Men and women in the marriage market don't know what they're going to encounter.""I have no peer models," says Eve. "So that's kind of scary."THE BIG PICTUREEver since the Atlantic Monthly tipped off Gen X frenzy with the article "The New Generation Gap" in 1992, the 13th generation has been lavishly portrayed as a mass of dour youth. Marketers now calculate that we are lagging a good 10 years behind our parents in terms of major life events (i.e., marriage, childbirth), and some attribute it to pervasive immaturity. David Lipsky's 1994 book Late Bloomers (co-authored with Alex Abrams) argues otherwise.Putting age at first marriage into historical perspective, Lipsky theorizes that social norms fluctuate with the economy. His argument goes this way: early marriages in America have traditionally been the exception rather than the rule, and not because of any peculiar generational temperament. In 1890, when the statistic was first recorded, median ages at first marriage were 26.1 for men and 22 for women. From then on, the median age dropped every year, bottoming out in 1956, when there were jobs around for everyone. During the Depression, America saw a radical reduction in the number of marriages. Throughout the '50s, the median age at first marriage dropped every year, bottoming out in 1960, when there were jobs around for everyone.Ever since then, Lipsky writes, the figure has been climbing steadily. There are half as many married couples in their mid-20s today as there were in the 1960s. The number of unmarried 25- to 30-year-olds has risen from 19 percent of men and 10 percent of women in the 1970s to 47 percent of men and 30 percent of women in the 1990s. Part of the reason is that people don't date "seriously" -- that is, with an eye toward marriage -- until they are satisfied with their careers."Marriage has to do with inviting someone into your life. It's like saying, 'Join my life. It's nice in here,'" Lipsky says. It's hard to do that when you're temping.ADULTS ONLYWith the shift in demographics has come a shift in the character of the event, which was once accepted as the threshold act of adulthood. Adulthood itself is a tricky topic these days, when the number of 25-year-olds living at home has risen from 15 percent (in 1970) to 21 percent (in 1990), higher than at any time since the Depression. Young people today expect to achieve financial independence long before they actually do, according to studies conducted by American Demographics magazine. What were, for our parents, mortgage-paying years, dissolve into debt-repayment years.As a result, in the life of a post-collegiate single American, there is no clear fault line between childhood and adulthood; we edge, rather than leap, toward it. A wedding, with its implication of permanence, sometimes looks like the endpoint of the journey toward personal development."I think marriage represents a kind of fixing of your lifestyle. Maybe for our parents it was the start of their life. Now, people have to be finished in some way," says Wice, who compiled the 1996 pop-culture encyclopedia alt.culture.Experts say even the leap into matrimony won't mean that we have graduated from Generation X. Frengut, of Market Insights, maintains that people in their 20s are just chronically immature. Marketers have redefined the 20s -- once known as "the nesting years" -- as the "boomerang" years, when young adults are more likely to move back home and have an unusual amount of discretionary income. Frengut doesn't see wedlock curbing this weakness for small luxuries and short-term thinking."In previous generations, it was understood that when you were starting out, you took a rapid slide in lifestyles. That's not the case in this generation at all," she says. "I think you leave [Generation X] by establishing that you're an adult, and I think the jury's still out on that, because they're not doing it. Do you think just because they get married they'll stop drinking cappuccino? No."WE DO (HEAVY SIGH)In a generation of stallers, couples who buck the trend say they have a profound sense of relief. Kathy Reich, who is 25, married Ken Myer a year after graduating from college, and says she can't imagine negotiating these uncertain years without the stability of a marriage."Being in your 20s is really rough. People are not really sure of anything. Marriage gives you a center. You know that the most important thing in your life is settled," says Reich. "I have some friends who got married or got engaged and it was kind of like law school -- they couldn't figure out what else to do."And maybe, she says, maybe it's just no fun being single anymore."Our generation got really screwed. We can't have random sex, we can't do drugs, we can't do anything fun," Reich says. She doesn't see much to envy in the lives of her single friends. "I don't see them having a great time," she says. "I see them getting hung over."There are scientific explanations for the joylessness of the single years, beyond the obvious specter of AIDS: the longer we delay marriage, the more difficult it is to find a spouse, says Goldsheider. Since five years is pushing the limit for continuing a college relationship not heading toward marriage, we are left dating long after the last promising pool of single peers dries up. In the absence of broad civic institutions, like the church or the extended family, singles are left to trawl for spouses in the workplace or in the personals, neither of which is entirely satisfactory as a market."When people got married in their early 20s, the markets worked so much better," Goldsheider says. "You met people in high school or college. Now, it's too long after the end of the last efficient marriage market, so you end up unpartnered in your late 20s. Where do you look for a marriage partner? People don't know each other in the same ways."In the meantime, as aging bachelors and bachelorettes, Gen Xers spend their first years in the workforce without a family as ballast. On one hand, this is an economic luxury, and, on the other, it can present a paralyzing range of variables -- where to live, how long to stay there, how much priority to put on a given prospect."One of our problems is that we have infinite possibilities," says Douglas Rushkoff, 34, who edited the Gen X Reader in 1994, and who mentions his desire to marry every sentence or so. "By getting married, you really do eliminate a whole mess of them. All the energy that is spent getting laid, or finding intimacy, or finding a place in the social schema, can be channeled to other things."HAPPILY EVER AFTER?At the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, where middle age is now chirpily termed "middle-escence," analysts have scrapped "Generation X" in favor of "the Bellwether Generation," on the grounds that the choices we are making today are likely to set patterns for the generations that will follow us. Our children will be more like us than we are like our parents.So the way we marry means a lot for the world. The demographic upshot of the delayed-marriage trend means, for one thing, a delay of childbirth until the mid 30s at the earliest. As a result, what Lipsky calls the "high-impact parenting stuff"-- the years of chasing toddlers and staying up nights -- is likely to fall toward middle age for today's twentysomethings. It also means that although births continue unabated, families with married parents will keep shrinking.We pay a price for the decade of self-discovery. Earlier generations could expect a second burst of independence beginning at about age 45, whereas we will likely have teenagers or even preteens at that stage. Lipsky describes the choice this way: "We can take the 10 years now, or we can take them later."We are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, taking them now, firmly establishing the 20s as a time of uncertainty. Compared to the bounding couples of 1960, we inch toward marriage with skepticism and exquisite self-consciousness. The question of the day, of course, is whether these matches will hold out longer than the last round. Most of us won't know for 20 years.In the face of this doubt, newlyweds can only squeeze their eyes shut and hope. Thornburg, who marries young couples at Boston University's chapel, says the couples he works with are taking the questions very seriously, and feel liberated by the process of invention -- perhaps because they have no choice in the matter."It's not anxiety so much as a searching, a seeking," he says. "What in the world will this look like in 40 years?"

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close