Ever wish you could go back to the good old days when men acted like gentlemen and dating led to marriage?
If so, chances are you were born before 1979.
For most of the 20th century, being an adult meant following the same script:
Meet a guy in high school or college, go steady, get engaged, marry young, and start a family.
But the generations born after 1979 didn’t get the memo.
They’re marrying later and later… if they marry at all.
They’re having children later and later… if they have children at all.
They’re taking life at their own pace. They want to finish their education and establish themselves in their career first. They want to have fun and do everything on their bucket list before they settle down.
They’re aware of the cost of marriage and children, and many aren’t sure they want to pay it.
Goodbye, Good Old Days
Social scientist Jean Twenge has been studying generations for thirty years.
And she’s finally collected all her observation in one place.
Her book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—And What They Mean For America’s Future is the definitive account of generational differences.
In it, Twenge shows that the “good old days” aren’t coming back.
Marriage will never be what it was in the 1950s.
And maybe, just maybe, that isn’t a bad thing…
Silents: The Generation That Defined Marriage (1925 – 1945)
The Silent generation earned the distinction of being “the most marrying generation of the 20th century.” A whopping 95% of them married.
They married incredibly young. Half of new brides were still teenagers. They had a lot of kids.
The Silents believed that it was a woman’s job to do it all herself. Married women often did all the childcare and household chores on their own, without nannies or paid help.
Even though we see the 1950s as the golden age of marriage, it was also the decade that kicked off the rise in divorce rates. Because the Silents married so young, they often grew apart.
Divorce didn’t have to mean a life of solitude, however. Most divorcees remarried.
You might be a Silent if…
- You don’t question traditional gender roles and embrace being a wife and mother.
- You expect to spend your entire adult life being married.
- You believe that society depends on family values and a strong nuclear family.
Boomers: Conventional Lives Despite Free Love (1946 – 1964)
Boomers began many of the trends we see today.
They started waiting to get married until they were 21 or 22.
They waited to start their families, too. On average, Boomers had their first child at the age of 24, but many postponed having children until their thirties. They could do this thanks to the birth control pill, which was approved by the FDA in 1960.
Boomers had fewer children than the Silents, but their birth rate was more in line with historical averages.
Boomers famously divorced in large numbers, but unlike the Silent they were more hesitant to remarry.
The number of Boomers who remained single for life doubled over the previous generation, establishing a trend that continues today. By 2020, 1 in 10 middle-aged women and 1 in 9 middle-aged men had never been married.
You might be a Boomer if…
- You prefer talking on the phone to texting.
- You expect dating to involve going out on actual dates.
- You believe that compromise and sacrifice are an essential part of making a relationship work.
Gen X: Have Kids Early, Marry Late (1965 – 1979)
Gen X flipped the script.
Instead of waiting to get married before having children, many Gen-Xers began having children outside of marriage. In 1960, only 1 in 20 babies was born to an unmarried mother. By 1993, 1 in 3 babies were.
This is partially a result of the high levels of teen sex that distinguished this generation. Gen X grew up fast, but they prolonged their adolescence by marrying later than previous generations.
Gen-Xers spent 7 years, on average, being single and sexually active before marrying. They eventually got around to marriage at the age of 25 for women and 27 for men.
This worked out well for them, though. Gen-Xers were less likely to divorce than their parents, in part because they married later.
Many Gen-Xers had a complicated relationship with marriage as a result of seeing their parents divorce. Many turned to living together as an alternative.
Gen X was the first generation to make living together a popular choice. One in 7 unmarried Gen-Xers lived with a romantic partner.
But once they did marry and start a family, they took to it with gusto. They had bigger families than Boomers. Even college-educated professional women embraced big families, perhaps because childcare was more widely available and working mothers more acceptable.
You might be a Gen-Xer if…
- You vowed never to get divorced, because you saw what it did.
- You’ve had more sexual partners than you’d ever admit to.
- You expected to have it all: a fulfilling career and a fantastic marriage and a happy family and exciting personal hobbies.
Millennials: Slowing Everything Down (1980 – 1994)
Millennials are doing less of everything.
They’re having fewer kids.
They’re having less sex.
They’re getting married later (at age 28 or 30), if they get married at all.
Some experts even suggest that 1 in 5 Millennial women might never end up marrying.
The Millennials are a generation of singletons. Most 25- to 39-year-olds haven’t tied the knot yet (a historic high).
They’re not necessarily swapping marriage for cohabitation, either. Only half of the unmarried Millennials are living with a partner. They’re more likely to be living on their own, with roommates, or at home with parents.
Even though Millennials have more access to potential sex partners than any generation in history thanks to dating apps, they’re less likely to be sexually active. Even young married couples are having less sex than previous generations. Why?
Twenge doesn’t know for sure, but she speculates that it could be because of the popularity of devices (why have sex when there’s a good show on Netflix?) and the ubiquity of pornography.
She also notes that dating apps have made it easier for some to find partners (the young and the beautiful), but not the majority. She quips, “Dating apps have created the relationship equivalent of income inequality.”
Even though many Millennials said they wanted big families when they were younger, most had fewer children than they expected. The birth rate dropped to less than 2 kids per family.
In part, this was because women were postponing having children until their late twenties and early thirties. They had a smaller window of time in which to have a family.
Also, raising a child takes more time and money these days. Parents today spend more time with their kids than previous generations. Childcare, extracurricular activities, and college tuition are spendy. Limiting family size makes practical sense.
You might be a Millennial if…
- You conduct a courtship over text.
- You believe love is love. You don’t have a problem with interracial relationships or same-sex relationships.
- You expect the father of your child to change just as many dirty diapers as you do.
Gen Z: Questioning Everything (1995 – 2012)
Gen Z are doing things their way.
They’re not going to marry young. They may not marry at all, if they don’t want to.
They’re questioning traditional relationships, just as they’re questioning the gender binary and rigid gender roles.
Fewer feel that marriage and family are extremely important. It may be that they have even fewer children than the Millennials.
You might be a Gen Z-er if…
- You will only date a partner who shares your political and moral values.
- You’re open to the idea of non-monogamy and alternative forms of partnership.
- You put yourself first. You feel comfortable leaving love on the back burner until you’re ready.