Are Millennials Better at Marriage?


Not all duos can work as well together as Motley Fool Answers hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp, so naturally, some will eventually split up. However, in the What’s Up, Allison? segment from this episode of the podcast, the news on the splitting-up front appears upbeat, based on recent studies that show that divorce rates are falling. And to get demographically specific, some of that can be credited to the lower divorce rates among millennials.

So, why qualify that “upbeat” with “appears”? Because when your favorite Fools dig into the data, they learn that it’s not all hearts and flowers in Marriageville, and the economics of wedded bliss complicate the rosy top-line numbers.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Oct. 2, 2018.

Robert Brokamp: So, Alison, what’s up?

Alison Southwick: Well, Bro, as you may know, I’m on a little bit of a mission to get people to stop bad-mouthing millennials.

Brokamp: It’s a noble mission.

Southwick: Well, today we’re going to look at a few studies that show millennials are actually pretty OK at something, and that something is staying married!

Brokamp: Really!

Southwick: Yeah! Did you not know this?

Brokamp: No!

Southwick: OK. Well, according to recent analysis of U.S. Census data by Dr. Philip Cohen at the University of Maryland, the divorce rate in the U.S. dropped 18% from 2008 to 2016 and it’s going to continue to drop all thanks to millennials.

Brokamp: Good for you guys!

Southwick: So, why is divorce on the decline? Well, for starters, millennials are doing a lot of things differently than baby boomers, who are actually really good at getting divorced. We’ll have more on that later.

What are millennials doing differently? Well, No. 1 they are waiting longer to get married. Let’s talk about the median age for first marriages for men in 2016 was 29 and a half years old. Now that is compared to 26.1 years old in 1990. For women in 2016, the median age for your first marriage was 27.4, which is actually up four years than it was in 1990.

Brokamp: In a previous episode, I think I went through some stats that showed the age at which you got married was a big predictor of whether you got divorced. The younger you are, the more likely you are to get divorced.

Southwick: And why is that? Well, the word on the street is because you’re going to have better finances. You’re going to be more established in your career. You’re probably going to have a better sense of who you are.

I remember my husband’s aunt was reminiscing about how when she first got married they had one car, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment with a baby and her husband, Uncle Bill, was still finishing college. So every night she would have to pack that baby into a car to go pick him up from night school. And I remember being so stunned. Why did you make it so hard on yourself? You were going through all of this with a baby on top of it.

Because that’s what you did. You got married and you started a family, whether you were financially ready or not and millennials, these days, are just like, nah, that’s it. Nah, I’ll wait!

The No. 2 reason why millennials are more likely to stay married is women are more educated and career-focused. So looking at some additional research from the University of Maryland [this time from Dr. Steven Martin — not the Steven Martin you’re hoping for]…

Brokamp: Oh, that wild and crazy guy.

Southwick: When the wife is more educated, the chances of the marriage lasting increase. How much? Well, from the 1970s to the 1990s, rates of divorce fell by almost half among four-year college graduates, but it remained relatively high for women with less than a four-year college degree. The divorce rate for women without undergraduate degrees has remained around 35% since 1980, but for women with college degrees, the divorce rate has shrunk from 27% to 16% since the 1980s.

The No. 3 reason. I don’t have hard numbers, here, but I think it’s still a valid point. We are all more accepting that we don’t have to follow the same path. So marriage between a man and a woman is no longer the only path that we must morally feel obligated to take. Growing LGBTQ acceptance is changing the norms around marriage and it’s increasingly acceptable to just not get married.

So here’s a funny story. You probably played this game as a kid, too. I remember as a little girl playing Old Maid . The card game. I remember playing it with my grandma a lot. This was in the ’80s. Basically if you’re not familiar with the game, the cards were all somewhat insensitive depictions of jobs. For example, Moonshot Martha is a female astronaut. Oh, that’s good!

Brokamp: That is good!

Southwick: But she’s in space doing her makeup. And don’t get me started on the Native American depiction. It’s not great. Anyway, in this game you trade cards trying to make matches, and then whoever ends up with the single Old Maid card, a card of an older woman who never got married, you’re the big, old loser.

In the ’80s, sitting on your grandmother’s shag carpet, you didn’t think about how incredibly offensive this game is on so many levels. So fast forward 30 years and there I am, a mom, playing this game with my daughter Hanna for the first time before I realized just how horrible it was.

Brokamp: Where did you get the game?

Southwick: Someone sent it to us. They sent us a package of Go Fish and…

Brokamp: Old Maid .

Southwick: Old Maid . So I’m like, “Oh yeah, I remember playing this. Let’s play it.” And we’re playing it, and I’m increasingly horrified. So now what we do is we play a game that we callIndependent Career-minded Woman and if you end up with the Old Maid card, you win! And Hanna prefers to play Go Fish anyway. But the point is just that game, as an example, [shows how] much more acceptable [it is] to not be married, or to marry the person that you want to marry regardless of their color, sexual orientation, etc.

Not only has the divorce rate declined for the reasons we talked about, it is expected to continue to decline. Why? Baby boomers. Yes, we already talked about how getting married younger and not having an education or financial stability can contribute to divorce, but there’s also this vicious [cycle].

Even when they were young, baby boomers had unprecedented levels of divorce and because remarriages tend to be less stable than first marriages, those that remarried are now, once again, contributing to growing levels of divorce for those over 50. It’s called “gray divorce”… You’re going to talk about this on the show, as well.

Pew Research found that among those age 65 and older, the divorce rate has roughly tripled since 1990. So yes, the divorce rate is expected to continue to decline because, again, baby boomers are the most likely to get divorced and baby boomers [how do I put it nicely] are aging out of existence, so they will stop…

Brokamp: Moving out of the sample size.

Southwick: The averages. So here’s actually a more interesting deeper dive. The gentleman who wrote the first study I mentioned that came out this week, Dr. Philip Cohen, told Bloomberg that he believes marriage is now becoming an achievement of status rather than something people do regardless of how they are doing. So marriage is increasingly becoming something that well-educated, financially stable people do.

Meanwhile, cohabitation is up, particularly among those who are poorer and less educated, and these relationships [cohabitation] are less stable than marriage and are not being taken into account when you look at divorce rates because they never got married to begin with.

So the demographics [show that people who are] older, wealthier, and educated are increasingly more likely to get married in the first place, while those who are likely to get divorced aren’t getting married to begin with. It’s fascinating to me that the idea that marriage itself — something that everyone was just supposed to do — is now becoming almost a status symbol.

Brokamp: Right. You build up enough money to buy a car, buy a house, and get married. It’s like one of those things. And if you haven’t gotten all those other things taken care of, you don’t get married.

Southwick: Yeah, as where before you’re going to get married and then your baby’s going to sleep in a dresser drawer and that’s fine because…

Brokamp: That’s what you do. Somebody told me that recently. They went to a wedding in a part of the country where people got married a lot younger. And she was shocked by how many people said, “You just get married and have kids, and then you don’t worry about how to pay for it. It will just somehow take care of itself.” Me, as a planner, I was looking at it like that’s not the way you do that.

Southwick: Not now, anyway.

Brokamp: Right.

Southwick: Increasingly less common.

Brokamp: So to bring it around to finance is something we talked about before. Divorce can be one of the most financially devastating things that can happen to you.

Southwick: Oh, wow! This is a great segue, isn’t it?

Brokamp: It is a great segue, right. We know that people often get divorced because of money, so it makes sense that people, like women, do have a four-year degree and they do earn higher income. It also introduces a certain level of stability and it probably reduces one of the factors that can lead to divorce, as well.

Southwick: Which is funny, because in the study he mentions how it’s even more remarkable that divorce rates are declining, because conventional thought used to be if that’s an educated woman, then she’s going to get divorced and [leave]. But actually you’re going to lead to all these factors of more stability in the marriage, as opposed to her being a more independent-minded woman who’s going to go off on her own and divorce her man. So Bro, that’s what’s up.

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