The New York Times Magazine article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” has been popping up all over the place since it was published, and I’ve been thinking very deeply about the points it makes in reference to another widely-quoted article that was published in Christianity Today a full year prior–“The Case for Early Marriage.” Both are very important articles about a single particular cultural shift, and despite their length, both are worth the time to read and ponder.
There are many, many good points in the CT article, but there was one that is particularly justified in light of this recent research. Author Mark Regnerus writes:
[T]he economic domain remains an area in which many parents are often able, but frequently unwilling, to assist their children. Many well-meaning parents use their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent.
This doesn’t sound very compassionate toward marriage–or toward family members. This is, however, a two-way street: many young adults consider it immature or humiliating to rely on others for financial or even social support. They would rather deal with sexual guilt–if they sense any at all–than consider marrying before they think they are ready. This cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go, and congregations and churchgoers can help by dropping their own punitive positions toward family members, as well as by identifying deserving young couples who could use a little extra help once in a while. Christians are great about supporting their missionaries, but in this matter, we can be missionaries to the marriages in our midst.
In the newer, secular NYT article, the stark financial reality of my generation is more detailed: twice as many of all twenty-somethings (totaling two-thirds) have received financial aid or literal task assistance from their parents in a given month. Richer parents give their children more money, but poor parents give their kids money too; whether rich or poor, the total is equivalent to roughly 10% of the parents’ income during the beginning of twenty-somethings. Countless news articles attest to the astounding unemployment/underemployment rate of this age segment, and it seems to be a growing certainty that, for whatever reason, the average twenty-something can’t quite manage to support themselves financially.
Enter the question of marriage into this scenario. Your peers are busy doing internships, “finding” themselves, or trying and failing to find a bread-winning job in a struggling economy. Two-thirds of them cohabit but don’t actually marry; very, very few have children. (And if we exclude the lowest social classes, the number of us with children will drop even more.) Yet we read articles and books that sound like they’re based on very biblical teachings, telling us that with marriage should come children, that women are to be keepers at home–and even in more secular churches, there is still often the idea that we should keep our children away from the (free) public schools, or that daycare is evil… in other words, the Christian idea of marriage is even more expensive than the secular idea of marriage, so should it really be a surprise that Christian young people are joining the world in delaying marriage? Marriage is expensive. And we live in a very non-community-centered culture where young people usually are financially expected to be very much on their own–if they’re married.
I understand where the idea comes from; it’s the whole “leave father and mother and cleave to spouse” thing; married people are supposed to be a good deal independent of their parents.
At the same time, though, I’ve seen so many young couples genuinely struggle to make ends meet (if they even get married in the first place), and so often their biggest problems are ones that would be reasonably trivial to fix. It’s a gap between the maturity, resources, and wisdom that they possess, and the maturity, resources, and wisdom that they need to make their home look like the ones we read about in Christian marriage/family how-to books. How many couples could figure out how to let the wife stay at home with their children if they only had someone giving them accurate piercing financial advice, or even a garage or basement or guest room to stay in for a few months so they can pay down their school debt and start putting what income they do have towards actual maintenance of their family? How many young couples without any credit on the books could buy a house if another family (their parents, mayhaps) who knew them to be responsible, genuine, hardworking people would give them a loan towards a down payment, or a second mortgage so they wouldn’t have to throw away money on PMI every month? How many hard-working husbands could learn and do excellent work in a new field–if a Christian small bushiness owner would trouble to give them the job in the first place, or if their parents’ network of friends could find a job within their ranks and connections?
It all sounds very obvious. This is a tremendous and important ministry opportunity. In all seriousness, however, I don’t see it happening very much. I see a lot of young couples who just struggle. Too many send their children to daycare because the paltry couple hundred dollars that’s left over from her income after paying for the daycare is still a couple hundred dollars that they can’t make up any other way. And I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me they “can’t afford” to have children, even though they’re working their tails off. School debt is a real killer, but there’s also plenty of instances where the couple just needs some really sound (and occasionally brutal) advice. But it doesn’t seem like anybody’s handing advice out to young couples these days.
I’m very passionate about people getting married. I think it’s silly and perverse that churches promote “purity pledges” and “True Love Waits” faux-wedding rings instead of urging marriage. At the same time, though, I understand why so many of my generation are holding off: society as a whole seems dead set against helping us figure out how to make marriage financially feasible–especially if we care to follow the biblical command to have children along with that marriage–and too many other Christians, even parents, don’t seem to regard it as a very high priority, either.