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

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falling in love and deciding to start the adventure of an adult life together even on a shoestring is becoming an outdated progression.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


"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.

Conway, former chief of staff for the U.S. Labor Department, said an astonishing 89 percent of young respondents said the economy has hurt them. The survey showed a third of those with full-time jobs needed part-time jobs to supplement income. They are underemployed. Other studies agree. Rutgers recently found 56 percent of newly minted high school graduates expect to be worse off financially than their parents and 58 percent doubt they will do as well as previous generations. It said half of new college grads are under- or unemployed.

Meanwhile, unemployment for 18-29 year olds in October was 12 percent and another 1.7 million young adults had stopped looking. If they were still searching, young adult unemployment would be 16.5 percent, according to Labor stats.

Different experts offer their own answers, typically in line with their areas of expertise, much like a surgeon suggesting an operation while a family doctor prescribes medication for the same symptoms.

Conway believes changing labor-market forces will make a difference. Noted matchmaker and author Hellen Chen, whose recent "Matchmaker of the Century" topped six lists at Barnes and Noble, has a different view. She believes finding the right match and marrying despite the economy is the right course.

Jump in?

People think money problems mean they shouldn't marry or raise a baby, she said. But family math is different. "One plus one is more than two. When you marry and work together and produce together, you make more money." She points, as proof, to past generations.

Couples are more likely to stay together in marriage than any other relationship permutation. So she tells people to date someone with whom they might be serious to see if marriage is in the offing. Then marry, without waiting years, which weakens bonds. After that, together, "date for the rest of your life," she said.

People who are serious about being together and who commit to it will find that their economics fall in line, she predicted, citing Census Bureau stats showing the median income of married men is higher than that of single men, $55,958 to $34,634.

"There is this misconception that one needs to have money before getting married. But the truth is, getting married will help a couple be more focused in their goals and careers and thus it will increase their ability to earn better wages," she said.

Elizabeth and Nick Dall of Salt Lake City waited two years to marry while she finished school and they looked for jobs that would support a household. The economy was so sour she couldn't find work so she went to graduate school. When she was nearly finished, they took the plunge into wedlock.

Now he's in school and works part time, while she works full-time as a health coach. Money's still tight and they have put plans to start a family on the back burner for a while. But they are working together toward those shared goals.

It helps a lot to have strong family support, said Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist Dr. Judy Rosenberg, creator of the Be the Cause Map System for overcoming habits and working through problems.

Her son and his wife, Michael and Kineret Perlmutter, live with her and are expecting a baby. They got married 18 months ago and the decision was easier, she said, because they knew they had her support in a very tough economy. That also enabled them to take a chance on starting an online business.

"The economy certainly factors in. When you are speaking of marriage, you are speaking of a partnership. Living together is a loose bond, marriage is a tight bond, with legal ramifications. If your spouse is having credit card difficulties, you inherit it. You merge your enterprises, big or small, and that's going to impact you on a larger scale," Rosenberg said.

Having support from extended family can overcome concerns about "what if," she said. "When you're speaking of getting married or not getting married, finances are a factor, but you have to take the big picture into account.... And marriage can inspire you to higher heights, to find your higher self. That's where so many people kick in that extra mile. I have been watching my son, who is about to be a father; he is shaking and moving, full of spirit and creativity. Some is economics, but love makes you healthier, support makes you happier. And people who are loved and supported are in a better position to function and be happier."

Wilcox says marriage provides the best chance for couples who hope to stay together. "The closer people are to marriage, the less risk there is." Plus, a "marriage benefit" brings economies of scale and more prudent financial behavior. Wilcox said studies show people are more likely to save if they are married.


But one real barrier to marriage and any benefit it might bestow, he added, is perception. Men are less likely to see themselves as marriage material — and women to view them that way, as well, — if they are unemployed or underemployed. The circles around to what the economy is doing to marriage.

Conway is convinced his group's polling and others' studies point to far greater long-term implications than people are considering. Young adults are incurring debt to get an education that doesn't provide jobs that will support them and pay off that debt or let them start families and move through traditional milestones. Their options to choose are limited. So they're not marrying and starting families. That doesn't mean they don't want to, Conway said.

"These are not self-absorbed people. They are consumers of information. They are well aware of the economic news," he said, noting young people are fascinated by stories of entrepreneurs who tackle the employment challenge differently. "They like to debate issues and think and plan for the future — and 76 percent of them think the lack of full-time jobs is shrinking the middle class."

Absent significant change, Conway wonders if a middle-class lifestyle will be an aspiration in as little as two or three years. "If you continue to lower access to an aspiration, at some point they will not aspire to it."

The effect will not only be seen in family formation and structure, but in the nation's global competitiveness and positioning, he warned. "Take a look at a population that does not grow in a world being shaped by the speed of technology and the ability to bring ideas and concepts to market quickly. ... I'm not sure it will stay competitive that long," he said.

Still, Conway's betting young people are up for the challenges. "When I think about these folks and their lives, I think about what they've already seen. They witnessed 911, volunteered to fight in two wars, cleaned up after Katrina. They have already given things up to the country and are just asking for access to work. I think that says a lot about them. The challenge will be to keep them engaged and craft policy that works. It's not their fault they are not working and have been put in a situation where they have to make a decision about putting off marriage.... They want the same things other generations have had and are concerned a lot of these things are just coming off the table."

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