Whether fairly or unfairly, the 20- and 30-somethings in the Millennial generation seem to have developed a reputation for avoiding commitment—perhaps it’s all that job-hopping and swiping right on Tinder.
But there seems to be another thing young adults aren’t settling down to do: getting married. Just 20% of Millennials ages 18 to 30 have tied the knot; compare that with 32% of Gen Xers and more than 40% of Baby Boomers were who married at that age, according to Gallup tracking data and U.S. Census Bureau numbers.
What’s behind this slow crawl to the altar? Looks like financial obligations—particularly student loans—are among the reasons giving them pause.
There’s no doubt that most Millennials are suffocating under a mountain of student loans: About 70% of the 2016 graduating class borrowed to pay for their college educations, carrying an average of $37,172 of student debt, stated higher-education expert Mark Kantrowitz in the Wall Street Journal.
And this type of debt was high on the list of reasons young adults gave when asked why they haven’t put a ring on it. According to a 2013 survey by the advocacy group American Student Assistance, 29% of Millennials indicated that they have put off marriage because of their student loan burden.
What puzzles researchers, however, is why Millennials feel that owing money precludes saying, “I do.” Previous generations of young adults also encountered financial difficulties, but it didn’t stop them from getting hitched. It could be that there has been a generational shift in the way marriage—as well as financial success—is now viewed. Here are a few theories reported by MarketWatch and other academic sources on why Millennials see debt as an obstacle to matrimony.
Marriage is no longer viewed as the cornerstone of adult life. Instead, Millennials may view it as something that caps off their lives rather than starts it, according to 2013 research from the National Marriage Project. They believe they need to have all their ducks in a row—including being debt-free—before embarking on traditional paths like marriage and starting a family.
College debt adds to the financial challenges of marriage. Ponying up for a ring, a ceremony and a honeymoon presents just the first layer of many potential financial obstacles together. All of this (plus other goals like building savings) can feel much more difficult when couples come into a marriage with large debt loads.
Debt feels embarrassing. Even though student debt is very common, there may still be a certain level of shame over unpaid loans. While couples in previous generations seemed to rely on each other more financially, Millennials don’t seem to want to burden their partner with their financial issues—or at least they want to wait to take the next step until they see a light at the end of the tunnel.
There’s not as much pressure to tie the knot at a young age. Once upon a time couples needed a ring to live together and form a household, but that social norm has shifted. Cohabitation has made it easier for young adults to spend their lives together without the necessity of entangling their financial lives—including having to deal with each other’s student loan debts.