My best friend and I are both 24 years old, career-driven, and single. We’re also both women who are set on marrying someone who shares our respective faiths — she’s Muslim, I’m Christian. We joke about our singleness a lot — every embarrassing picture, ridiculous dance move and dumb comment is attended by the sarcastic-but-obligatory, “Why am I still single?”
But to my friends who are “nones,” being in your mid-twenties and unmarried is normal, even preferred. Many are closing in on 30 and still in no rush to marry.
They appear to be in good company.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 26 percent of Millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1996, are married. This is a decrease from previous generations: by the time they were in the current Millennial age range (18-33), 36 percent of Generation Xers, 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 65 percent of the Silent Generation were married.
Millennials’ median marriage age is also the highest of any group in modern history — 29 for men and 27 for women. Though most unmarried Millennials (69 percent) say they’d like to marry, they’re not in a hurry.
Yet, if you belong to a religious tradition, it’s easy to feel like you missed the boat by not finding your spouse in college. Religious people just tend to marry earlier. Many a joke has been made about the “ring by spring or your money back” refrain sung by Bible colleges (aka, “bridal colleges”). Still, it seems that an increasing number of faithful Millennials are putting off marriage into their late twenties and beyond.
So, why are religious Millennials waiting to tie the knot? My own Christian perspective frames the following list of five reasons, but I ran it by my best friend, who agreed she’s seen similar situations play out within the Muslim context.
1. We’re driven by our careers.
In the past, women of faith were guided to the ready-made “callings” of marriage and motherhood, but they’re now as free as their secular counterparts to pursue careers and post-graduate education. Not only that, but religious Millennials view their professions as honoring God.
Katelyn Beaty in Christianity Today had this to say: “Jesus and Paul, we know, spoke highly of the gift of singleness, as a chance to devote greater and undistracted attention to their ministry. As more Christian women are both working full-time, and staying single for longer periods than expected, or for life, they will need a positive theology of work.”
Of course, it’s not just women who can honor God in their profession. Men and women alike are choosing to make careers, not marriage, a priority. Marriage, according to the Knot Yet report, is viewed as something Millennials want to do after they’ve sorted out the other aspects of life — it’s “a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone.’”
2. True love isn’t waiting.
The majority (77 percent) of evangelical Millennials agree that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. But that hasn’t stopped most of them from doing it. In fact, 80 percent of unmarried Millennials who self-identify as evangelicals have had sex, according to a study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Of that 80 percent, 64 percent reported having sex in the last year, and 42 percent say they are currently in a sexual relationship. So, why aren’t evangelical Millennials putting their beliefs into practice?
An article in Relevant magazine, a Christian publication aimed at twenty- and thirty-somethings, points out that people married earlier in biblical times, meaning the waiting period between puberty and marriage was much shorter. Now, “as the average marrying age creeps closer to 30, the time period when Christians are called to be chaste can easily extend a decade beyond their high school graduation — or much longer.”
Even using a stricter definition of “evangelical,” a study by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 44 percent of evangelical Millennials had premarital sex. One Gospel Coalition blog said sex outside of marriage is the Millennial generation’s acceptable sin.
With premarital sex on the table for a hefty percentage of religious Millennials, the pull of marriage seems a little bit weaker. It’s a less one-sided version of the old adage: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
3. Men are acting like boys.
I hesitate to include this, mainly because I don’t mean to bash the men out there, but I came across too many people who affirmed this notion. Kevin DeYoung, author of Just Do Something, says that a number of commentators, Christians included, have noticed a trend in Millennial men — they aren’t growing up. The common question he hears from young Christian women around the country: “Where have all the marriageable men gone?”
DeYoung contends: “The Christian men that are ‘good guys’ could use a little — what’s the word I’m looking for — ambition.” I heard a similar response when I asked a few unmarried Christian guys in their early twenties why marriage is being delayed. They said guys now tend to be less forward about their intentions, made easier by the ability to hide behind indirect forms of communication (think text messages, email, Facebook).
To be sure, the blame could also be placed on ladies who might be equally immature or have unrealistic expectations of their future spouse. We’re all guilty of having a list of requirements: 6-foot, handsome, faithful Christian with a social life . . . . Maybe we’re expecting too much and have confused what it means not to “settle,” and so we stay single, waiting and hoping for our version of Mr. Right.
For a generation where its commonplace to play Madden for hours on end, live at home well into adulthood and not be able to maintain a savings account, marriage might take a backseat because growing up has, too.
4. We don’t know how to date.
Debra Fileta, a professional counselor, comes right out with it: “Christians are bad at dating.” I agree. When your faith puts an enormous emphasis on marriage to the extent that casual dates are frowned upon, dating comes with serious pressure. When you go out for coffee knowing that the person across the table is thinking the same thing you are — “Could I see myself marrying this person?” — it’s just too much for a first date.
And it’s a complete reversal of the wider culture, where casual hook-ups abound and elicit praise. When hooking up is not an option and your religious subculture sees dating as only a first step toward marriage, dating becomes a burden. It’s just easier to take a break.
5. Singleness is attractive.
Previous generations have shown Millennials that, a lot of the time, marriage doesn’t last. With divorce rates in excess of 50 percent (or, as sociologist Bradley Wright suggests, 60 percent for nominal Christians and 38 percent for regular church-attending Christians), it looks like marriage has but a fighting chance for survival. So why rush it?
And, in general, parents of Millennials aren’t putting as much pressure on their kids to marry. I’ve personally never heard any version of the phrase, “When are you going to get married? I want grandkids” from my mom. Neither has my best friend heard that from hers. More likely, her mom has been protecting her against unsolicited marriage offers.
By waiting longer to settle down into marriage, it’s also easier for Millennials to feel the freedom to move from one city to the next, one job to the next, or one church to the next. Singleness is often characterized as a time of liberty during which we can be selfish. The persistent marriage metaphor is “ball and chain.” No surprise that Generation Me is wary of being tied down.
Image by Thomas Leuthard.