Monday, September 23, 2013

Is marriage ready for a comeback among Millennials? Maybe.

Part of the reason for the advance of same sex "marriage" in Minnesota and other states is a result of how devalued marriage as an institution has become.  It's become whatever we want it to become.  Life long commit?  Forget it.  Unilateral divorce.  Man and woman?  Unnecessary.  It's whatever any two (and eventually more) people want it to be.  Fidelity?  No way.  If someone else comes along no problem.  (This is the next shoe to drop.)

Yet it appears there maybe an awakening among Millennials to look at marriage more seriously.    Here's an interesting article by a St. Thomas professor and the feedback she's getting from students who she says aren't particularly religious.
It’s a cold, sleety Minnesota day, and I’m in a classroom with 25 undergraduate students, talking about marriage. This discussion is the culmination of a mini-unit in which (among other things) we examined sociological data showing worrisome marital trends in America.

We discussed how various social problems, particularly among the poor, might be ameliorated through a strengthening of marriage. Charles Murray’s portrayal of “Fishtown,” combined with the New York Times’ “Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do,’” painted vividly the challenges that a weak marriage culture creates for poor families. Now I put the question to the students: What might help? How can we better encourage people to get and stay married?

A young man raises his hand. “This unit was interesting, but the university should offer whole classes on marriage. A lot of people don’t realize how important it is, for their kids and just for having a happy life.”

Another hand. “They should talk about this in high school, too. It seems like we heard a lot of warnings about drugs and dropping out and safe sex. I don’t remember hearing anything about marriage.”

A third student chimes in, “Parents should talk with their kids about it. Mine never did. I sort of wanted them to, but it was awkward to ask, you know?” A number of heads nodded in agreement.
The first time I heard students talk like this, I was amazed. I have rarely known undergraduates to be so self-aware. I would almost have thought that they were telling me what I wanted to hear, had not long experience taught me that students were thoroughly inept at discerning what I wanted to hear.

Now, after several semesters of discussing marriage with my introductory ethics classes, I’ve heard these concerns expressed enough times to conclude that, for all their righteous zeal concerning sexual freedom, undergraduates do actually know that they are confused about marriage.

This is interesting, particularly since the young people in question are not particularly religious or conservative. My students represent a fairly standard cross-section of middle-class American 20-year-olds. They can talk all day about the evils of global warming and homophobia, but the decline of marriage is, for most of them, a fairly new subject. Nevertheless, they are easily convinced that our society has a marriage problem, because they know that they have a marriage problem, which their teachers and parents have done little to help them resolve.

To me, this frank uncertainty about marriage makes a fitting centerpiece in the tragic tableau of today’s young Americans. They seem to be almost perfectly unsuited to the social and political climate of their time, like hothouse flowers whose cultivators failed to note that they were destined to be planted in an alpine tundra. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: young people want the right things (security, love, and a prosperous life), but they have very wrong ideas about how best to attain them.

Today’s undergraduates are not, for the most part, radicals and revolutionaries. They harbor conventional hopes of professional success and happy marriages. But while they believe that the first can reliably be secured through hard work and dedication, marriage seems in their minds to require a mysterious mixture of good fortune and good chemistry, perhaps combined with the social status that they hope to win through professional success.

Unfortunately, they have things exactly backwards. A good marriage is the sort of thing that almost anyone can aspire to, regardless of skills, education, or status. The most important ingredients for marital success are within any individual’s power to attain. Professional success, by contrast, does reflect hard work and commitment, but it also depends on complex external factors that no individual person can control. For today’s rising generation, those external factors are not looking promising.

The students of private universities are, for the most part, children of privilege, and they behave as such. David Brooks has written extensively on this, and my observations agree largely with his: today’s undergraduates are industrious, well-habituated rule followers who have been superbly socialized to conform to the expectations of their elders. They take it as axiomatic that they have obligations to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate through political action, which is the duty they pay for their ideological commitment to equality.

At the same time, they regard it as their birthright to inherit the prosperous and secure world that their parents mostly enjoyed. Even as they stand on the cusp of significant political and economic change, I find my students to be curiously uninterested in helping to reshape the future. For the most part, they are content with their conventional goals of upward mobility, material comfort, and marital success....

It is encouraging to find, at least, that many young people today are open to learning more about marriage. They may be relieved to hear that it is not, after all, such a mystery. Eons of wisdom can help us to make sense of what it is, and how it works, and how it can be made to work. Marriage has given structure and purpose to the lives of an incredibly diverse array of people, across millennia of human history. It can work for young Americans today. And the consolations of family life could help to compensate for the other disappointments and challenges that these over-optimistic youth are likely to encounter once they move beyond the classroom.

Millennials want to hear this, and they need to know. If their elders want to atone for the mistakes of yesteryear, now is the time to start talking about marriage.

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