Religion & Liberty Online

The Gen Z Marriage Paradox

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Those in Gen Z appear to have grasped that the collapse of marriage and raising children in single-parent households have had terrible social and personal consequences. So why aren’t they acting like it?

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Marriage—an institution as old as time—is increasingly under threat. The marriage rate has fallen 60% since 1970, and the number of children living in working-class, married-parent families fell from 85% to 55% in the same time frame. Two-thirds of Americans believe that two unmarried, cohabitating individuals should receive the same rights as married couples, and 69% believe cohabitation is acceptable even if a couple doesn’t plan to get married. A 2019 Pew study shows a larger number of couples ages 18–44 have cohabitated than have been married—with the majority percentage continuing to rise. But the greatest pushback against the institution of marriage has come in the form of not getting married at all. This is the tumultuous climate in which Generation Z—born between 1997 and 2012—has been raised and the environment in which their views on marriage have been established.

In the midst of this unraveling of traditional marriage, Gen Z appears to have grasped the perils of being raised under these conditions and the threats posed to future prosperity, something exhibited by both polling data and social signals such as trending lower divorce rates, delayed marriage, and increased education. However, under the veil of “acceptance” and “open-mindedness,” there is also a refusal to condemn others and society at large for these detrimental anti-marriage trends.

Gen Z especially has experienced the effects of this decline in marriage. One-third of Gen Z has been born to unmarried women, and nearly 25% of these children grew up in single-parent homes, a rate higher than in any other country in the world. Except for outlying factors such as the presence of abuse in the home, children growing up in two-parents homes have statistically more prosperous lives than those raised in single-parent homes—and the “Zoomers” seem to understand these trends, but with typical Gen Z confusion.

For example, the most glaring of these statistics is Gen Z’s negative view toward single parenting, in tandem with a lack of appreciation for the necessity of marriage. Almost 9 in 10 Gen Zers believe cohabitation outside of marriage makes no difference or is a good thing for society. This in juxtaposition with 35% who view single parenting as a negative for society, with just 15% saying it’s a good for society. These statistics are not wildly different from the views of both Gen X and Boomers, a rarity. Moreover, an overwhelming 79% believe financial responsibilities should be shared among both the father and the mother, a view also shared by Millennials. Putting aside the implications of abolishing traditional gender roles, the strong desire for a double-income family speaks volumes about the longings of Gen Z for two-parent, dual-income households.

Gen Z’s embrace of a “radical inclusivity” shines brightly in these statistics. Zoomers understand the value of marital standards and the negative effects when such standards are disregarded, but, again, they’re unwilling to hold others to these standards for fear of not displaying a resounding, all-inclusive “acceptance” and thus being branded as bigoted. This paradoxical thinking becomes more apparent when examining the statistics on healthy marriages. According to research by Jay Zagorsky at Ohio State University, individuals in lasting marriages have roughly double the wealth of the unmarried, four times the wealth when factoring in household income. Such relationships also coincide with better physical health, greater mental health, and an increase in overall happiness, among other benefits shown through numerous studies and research. Gen Z is not naive when it comes to such data, but there is a lack of consistency when their application comes into play. Not only are those in Gen Z unwilling to hold others to advantageous marital standards, but they themselves do not abide by any moral marital code. In fact, more than 11% of 18-to-24-year-olds (the oldest among Gen Z) are living with an unmarried partner, the highest number ever recorded.

There is an obvious downward cycle that coincides with the abolishment of healthy marriage. An unwillingness to draw out the implications of an objective truth, even one backed up by social science, makes breaking negative patterns increasingly difficult for Gen Zers. There is a natural inclination in humans to learn from mistakes so as to pave the way for a better future, but this does not appear to be the case with Gen Z. Instead, despite lived experience and a clear understanding of the negative consequences of disregarding the benefits of marriage, the personal trajectory remains unchanged—the road to unmarried, single parents and unhappy, unhealthy children continues to be built. And the driving force for this paradox seems to be fear of social alienation, of being judged too judgmental!

While many point toward the financial barriers to marriage (and this certainly plays a role), the root of this paradoxical situation is seemingly upstream of marital policy among other factors. How is the idea of sexual activity and marriage portrayed in pop culture? Why does the average American lose his or her virginity at 17 while putting off marriage until age 30 or so? Why is divorce accepted so readily, as almost “normal” or expected? Why doesn’t this generation see a correlation between cohabitation outside of marriage and single motherhood, and single motherhood and a tougher financial road? These are the questions that must be asked of this generation—and answered—if significant change is to occur.

The problem is not entirely founded upon dollars and cents, but it rooted in a culture that undervalues family and marriage in lieu of personal professional achievement and autonomy, values that are consistently reinforced in, for example, popular entertainment. We need more movies and TV shows that portray healthy, thriving nuclear families where parents are respected and marriage is viewed as important, even vital. Our music needs to stop promoting destructive ideas about premarital sex. Churches must teach the biblical significance of marriage and give Christians defenses against an ethic of “absolute tolerance” of anything and everything in the sexual realm. And parents need to teach their children virtue. This is a long-game prescription for change.

If Gen Z truly wants healing from a broken family, their best bet is not wholesale acceptance of anything, but acceptance of the truth—acceptance demonstrated by better life choices.

David VanDyke

David VanDyke is a student at Taylor University majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE) with finance and entrepreneurship minors. Involved with student leadership, he is an elected member of Taylor University's Student Senate and holds a position on Taylor University's American Enterprise Institute Executive Council. David has interned at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic based in Indianapolis and is currently an Acton Institute Emerging Leader. Looking to the future, he is considering attending graduate school to pursue a dual JD-MBA degree.