Millennials and Marriage

In Joseph Smith’s lifetime, America’s population was essentially 90% rural and existed more or less in the Jeffersonian ideal of subsistence farming. These farms were nuclear family enterprises, not generally places of extended family dwellings. To operate a farm required cooperative distribution of labor, men generally cleared land and engaged in cultivation and hunting for food. Women engaged in disciplines of manufacture. Government reports indicate that 2/3 of all clothing and linen was produced in households in 1810 and shopkeepers in towns contracted with housewives to produce goods beyond home use. That production often functioned as payment for credit extended for farm implements and household tools and the like.

Life activities took place at home. Production and consumption and trade were local activities. Children were born at home, literacy was a home-centered goal for the most part. People generally did not live beyond their early 40s on average. Only one in eight persons survived beyond that age, and women had shorter lives than men, largely due to the frank problems of childbirth, an agonizing and dangerous thing. One third of children among white families died before age 15. Half of black children died in the same period. A woman might experience twelve or fifteen births. Home could not operate or survive without this tripartite existence. Despite the dangers, and the common law reductionism of female status in coverture, etc., women looked forward to marriage. It meant independence in the generally joint operation of the family farm. Otherwise, they were doomed to live in some other woman’s home. A prospect that meant limited freedom of activity and expression.

Forces of technology led to distribution and specialization of labor and consequent gradual liberalization in law and position for women (they finally got the vote a hundred years later). Those same forces gradually placed the necessity of marriage as necessary to life on an ever more shallow footing. Instead of segregation of labor, boundaries driven by biology melted away in large part. Two hundred years later, marriage rates are sinking fast.

Median age for marriage is now 27 for women, 29 for men and a large fraction of millennials will remain unmarried through age 40. Some predictions suggest that only 70% will marry, while for boomers the rate was 90%, Gen X: 82%. A Pew analysis predicts that 25% of Millennials will never marry and the number of singles who want to marry has dropped drastically over the last decade. Among black Americans, the percentage is 10 points higher. Issues involved include more desirable freedoms available to singles and financial issues play a significant role.

My own experience with single Mormons? Similar forces seem to be a work. I know of more and more single women, college graduates, capable, living in Utah, not Manhattan. Many of them have boyfriends, but no marriage plans. It seems to be a satisfying and comfortable lifestyle for many. And it has interesting consequences if the trend continues.


  1. Bill, my impression of your last paragraph is that it really misses the degree to which single LDS women wrestle with tremendous feelings of inadequacy and social worth as singles. We really punish single people in our religion. That said, the trends you cite are real.

  2. Oh, I think that is historically true. My anecdotal impression is that those feelings are less intense now than ever.

  3. My experience and observation of non-Mormon millenials (limited and anecdotal) is that marriage is almost entirely about children. Before or without children, marriage is hardly a thought. On the other hand, while single parenting is possible and sometimes chosen, it seems to never/rarely be first choice. The implications cut several ways at once.

  4. My very subtle(?) point may be this: family ideals appearing in Joseph Smith’s revelations and personal attitudes and administrative policy, such as it did, seem to be connected to societal norms. While those norms were changing, the fixation of print, and the isolation of Utah may have worked to imprint ideals within Mormon discourse, and set those ideals over against modernism. Of course it’s been noted before.

  5. Great observations.

  6. I would be interested to see a post on married Mormon millennials and how they are coping with modern marriage and lifestyles. It seems to me that the independence once found in a marriage/household/business partnership as described in the post isn’t as available today, and I think many struggle being “tied down” to married life and losing their sense of independence as a sacrifice for the family.

  7. I have a lot of never-married Mormon friends who live in the Mormon Corridor and who are in their mid-30’s. While from an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like a satisfying and comfortable lifestyle for them, that’s absolutely not the case. Sure, they’re able to take exotic trips and have time and money to go on all kinds of adventures. But they also have to put up with all kinds of crap at church, they long for the companionship of a spouse, and they want to have children before it’s too late.

  8. Katie M. says:

    “Two hundred years later, marriage rates are sinking fast.”

    At the end of the 19th century, the average marrying age for men was 26 (quite close to the modern age) and almost 70% of all young men ages 15-34 were bachelors. When we compare the modern marrying age to the past, we tend to compare it to the 1950s, which was itself the historical anomaly. Marriage age often goes up and down through the decades depending on factors of economy and culture. Though prospects for Millennial marriage now seem dire, I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend doesn’t end up working out as analysts predict.

  9. One of the huge differences between single LDS millennials and non-LDS millennials is sex and the law of chastity. It feels to me like we can’t have this discussion without being open about this difference between the two groups.

  10. I can believe that feelings of inadequacy are declining among single LDS women and men. If nothing else, there is comfort in numbers.

    I wonder how many of the millennials who never get married will be content to never have a traditional family though. My impression is that never-married Gen Xers mostly aren’t content, especially in the Church but even outside of it. I’ve talked to a couple of psychologists (outside of Utah) who say their officers are filled with never-married thirtysomethings (mostly women but some men too) who are struggling with the realization that they will never have a traditional family.

  11. I’m glad Katie said something about your numbers. Are the numbers for Joseph Smith’s lifetime New England or Mid-Atlantic numbers? American South with its lower life expectancy and higher death rate for women?

    In the 19th century, age at first marriage in Scandinavia looked much like Millennial demographics today. Mean age of first marriage in Scandinavia between 1750 and 1850 was 29–32 years for men and 26–28 years for women. (And, still, they managed to become the ancestors of a large portion of the population of Utah.)

    I don’t have American statistics at hand, but I’m wondering about your figure for 12-15 births. That is rather high, historically. I’m going off memory (dangerous, I know, and I’m wishing I had those old studies from my college days) but the number should be closer to 6–9 live births per woman before the advent of modern birth control. By the 1930s–1940s (flipping through a couple of large descendancy books here), many Mormon families were down to 3–6 children, with 3 being a surprisingly common number. Based on many active Mormon families in my acquaintanceship, that range still holds true, but undoubtedly there is variation by decade as Katie mentions.

    If the Church and the surrounding church culture strengthens and increases its language on marriage and families, will it lower the marriage age? Increase the marriage rate? Increase the number of children per family? There seemed to be some effect in the 1970s. Could it happen again?

  12. Marriage rates in Scandinavia are a bit misleading for that time period. From what I’ve seen looking through genealogy records in Sweden, they were often living together and having children years before they were married,much like they do today. So they may have been putting off marriage but they weren’t putting off starting a family (or at least not to the extent that the marriage records would indicate).

  13. Katie M., yes, trends have varied. I’m just curious about the current one and how it interfaces with pastoral workings.

    Amy T., strictly antebellum America and largely the North. I don’t have regional break downs, but I suspect that they don’t differ much for the population segment I’m talking about. 12-15 is upper end of the distribution, not a mean. I think I said “might.” Will the culture strengthen its language on marriage and families?

  14. whizzbang says:

    I’m 37, single male, divorced with a son and i’m very active in the church. Where I live there are 2 women my age, one is dying but has been for about 10 years now and the other is really mean. There are no prospects here for me so what I am supposed to do? The single women all seem to live in Alberta but I can’t leave my son to move there to date anyone, somebody would have to come here. My patriarchal blessing talks about a happy life, wife and children and being 37 i’m like so……….am I doing something wrong or what? I don’t know what to do

  15. To me this suggests two things: (1) the full-court press on marriage and family (see, e.g., is insufficient to produce the kinds of outcomes the church wants in the face of overpowering social, demographic, and economic forces, and (2) continuing and even intensifying the full-court press, as the church clearly is, makes it a less hospitable place for the greater and greater number of members who don’t achieve those outcomes.

  16. whizzbang, that’s rough. If I were inclined tell someone what to do, I’d tell you to start dating non-Mormons.

  17. whizzbang, I commiserate, ironically.

    I live in a heavily Mormon area. The last man I went on a date with was from a MUCH less Mormon area, and asked me how long it’s been since my divorce, and “how are you not married yet?”

    The particulars weren’t his business, but being in the middle of Mormonville doesn’t change much for those of us with kids. All the programs are for overaged YSAs, with all the mentality and strategies for them that didn’t work for them in the YSA wards. I’m not a “single.” I’m a mother, homeowner, career (by necessity) woman. It sounds snotty to say that my experiences so far have failed to help me find someone who can keep up, but it’s the reality. I have a very full plate, and if I have to choose, I choose my children. Dating, if at all, fits in the holes left when they are elsewhere.

    Plus, I’m not exactly marketable in a large dating economy. Too tall, too chubby, too interested in “boring” things like gardening and DIY, too unavailable for entertainment-based activities. I really wish there was a way to spend time around other singles who have a life already, instead of waiting for life to start. Whether they have kids or not.

    So, even though I’m drowning in Mormons, I don’t expect to remarry. And “dating non-Mormons” isn’t an answer for me. The only marriage I’m interested in is an eternal one. The temple is a mere baseline for that. Sigh.

    I guess I’m just trying to tell you it might not be any easier if you COULD relocate, so don’t feel too tied down by things you can’t change. But you’re not alone. There’s at least cold comfort in that.

  18. a single millennial mormon lady says:

    “I know of more and more single women, college graduates, capable, living in Utah, not Manhattan. Many of them have boyfriends, but no marriage plans. It seems to be a satisfying and comfortable lifestyle for many.”

    Being a single Mormon millennial, I also know tons of single Mormon women who fit the same categories (capable, living not just in NYC, but basically everywhere). Most of the active Mormon women I know don’t have boyfriends without marriage plans. In fact, most probably have marriage plans that have been tossed to the side because no Mormon boyfriends have materialized. (Very few of my friends have dated someone for more than a year before getting married/breaking up, so having a boyfriend without thinking about marriage isn’t really something I’ve seen, although I’m sure it happens from time to time.)

    Most of us are not exactly choosing to be single – there just aren’t enough active Mormon men to marry, in comparison to active Mormon women. In my singles ward of at least 50 college educated women, there are maybe 5 or 6 eligible men (eligible = college educated, not complete weirdos, not engaged to someone outside the ward). True, some of us are satisfied and comfortable with our lifestyles and don’t want to get married, but I think a lot of that has to do with accepting the fact that if you are an educated, active Mormon woman past a certain age (certainly 31…not sure how low it goes, but 27/28 seems to be the beginning of future-cat-lady-dom) you are probably not going to find an active Mormon man to marry. If that’s a deal breaker for you, if temple marriage or bust is really how you feel, then you kind of have to accept the fact that the odds are not in your favor and move on and enjoy your life. Not sure I’m communicating it properly – what I’m trying to say is that women who look like they’re totally fine with being single forever might not actually want that, but that doesn’t mean they’re all miserable (although some certainly are). Things might suck for Whizzbang being outside of a Mormon hub, but at least he could theoretically go to Alberta and have the odds be ever in his favor. Mormon women seem to always outnumber Mormon men…

  19. wizzbang, that kind of isolation is tough. I don’t have a solution, but gst has a point.

  20. mormon lady, I’m sure there is that subtext of making the best of it for many people. I’m just going on some of the people I know. Not scientific. And I appreciate your candor.

  21. Clark Goble says:

    Out of curiosity, I find the focus on “college educated” interesting. Back in the day I remembered being surprised how many men wouldn’t date seriously a woman smarter or more successful than them. That flat out confused me and still makes no sense beyond individual insecurities. Yet a commonly noted demographic change is the martial sorting such that professionals tend to marry professionals rather than those not as successful or educated. But again, if we cast an eye askance at men not seriously considering those smarter than them, isn’t the reverse just as problematic?

    Now I married fairly late (35) and at the time I certainly felt it wasn’t by choice I didn’t have a serious relationship. Now looking back I’m not so sure. I do think that perhaps we create expectations that make total sense at the time but from a larger view seem a tad silly. I suspect that one problem of so many of us marrying later than was once the case is expecting our spouse to come from the group we consider ourselves to be in. Maybe we just need to break out of our comfort zone a bit. Without saying anything about contemporary singles (I just don’t have the experience to say much anymore) looking back and my friends and I, that certainly is a charge I think fit us.

  22. Not mean, not dying; quite a catch. says:

    A single, late 30s, Gen X female here. Yes to everything a single millennial Mormon lady said.

    Whizzbang, sounds like you’re in Canada. (??) If by some terrifying turn Donald Trump is elected, I will gladly sacrifice my “satisfying and comfortable lifestyle” and come to you wherever it is you live that’s too far from Alberta.

  23. It’s nice to see Donald Trump bringing people together. Make Mormons Marry Again!

  24. whizzbang says:

    hahahahhahahaha! Do come!!!!!! I do live in Canada , just over the border convenient to everything! well except women!

  25. RJ, remember that thing about an ill wind.

  26. TooPersonaltobeNamed says:

    Clark Goble, I know my experience is anecdotal, but I am pretty successful and well educated and married a man less so(some college, no real career goals). He then used his feelings of inadequacy, according to him created by my success and education, to justify cheating on me for several years because it made him feel like he was powerful and in control in the relationship. Obviously I’m not saying people in more equal pairings don’t also experience infidelity, but based on my experience, if I ever date again, it will probably be only with men of equal educational backgrounds.

  27. I am in my early thirties and unmarried by choice – with no intention of marrying- so I realize I am not the norm here, but I tend to agree with millennial mormon lady, dating is hard in the mormon community. Men are often intimidated by or plain unattracted to women who can be independent. Women are not interested in dating men who have no real focus in life and are waiting to get married before they make their life choices (schooling, career, living situations, etc.).

    Worse than the actual dating scene is going to church, at least for me. Single adults are in a bizarre purgatory where we are not young enough to be considered kids/YA, and not accepted as adults because we have no spouse. Every interaction I have revolves around someone trying to set me up or patronizing me by telling me that my life will really begin once I am married. I’m sure they have the best intentions but its crazy to me that my life and contributions to the ward/community are not considered because I am not married.

    The large population of single adults in the church is a relatively new phenomenon so I get that no one knows how to really handle it, but there have to be some better common sense answers than what our options are now.

  28. Anon for obvious reasons says:

    My single daughter is 28 and lives in Utah County. She has six roommates, all of whom are graduated, attractive, ambitious and would marry if the right guy came along. I’ve met many of the guys in her ward, professional, late 20s-early 30s, attractive, etc. Not happening. In her words, “its better to be single and miserable than married and miserable”. A lot of heartbreak there, but true. The earlier comment about sex is a factor. Pornography and selfishness is another. I see a lot of younger women marry then divorce when the porn problem rears its ugly head. I guess the point here is “Life is tough on the streets” to use another of her apartment’s favorite phrases.

  29. “Every interaction I have revolves around someone trying to set me up or patronizing me by telling me that my life will really begin once I am married. I’m sure they have the best intentions but its crazy to me that my life and contributions to the ward/community are not considered because I am not married.”

    This is the biggest problem in the church today, in my opinion–failing to minister to people as individuals. And it shows no signs of getting better, unfortunately.

  30. Just me says:

    Mid-30s single, well-educated woman here. Many of us have created good, solid, happy lives for ourselves because, seriously, what’s the alternative? Be miserable? Sackcloth and ashes? Accepting that I wasn’t going to get married any time soon and that it was even less likely that I’d ever have children was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. It finally allowed me to be okay with myself and God’s plan for me, focus on building other kinds of interpersonal relationships and support networks, and feel really good about the contributions I make in my various roles in society.

    Church was absolutely miserable for several years, though (and I was one who always loved church). Getting kicked out of the singles ward was demoralizing and brought on so many feelings of shame. Sitting through countless lessons on wifedom and motherhood and The Family can be extremely painful, even in a ward that is generally pretty thoughtful. These days I can usually filter through the toxic stuff, but it takes a toll.

    My whole conception of God and the Gospel had to get pared down to the essentials or else I would have had to leave to escape the pain. God loves us. Agency. The atonement. Forgiveness. Be good to each other. That’s about all that’s left for me, though I hope someday to rebuild in some of the other parts of our doctrine.

    By the way, there is nothing more refreshing than when someone who is married acknowledges and respects the experiences and life lessons of singledom. Or acknowledges that single adult life is hard and probably looks much different at 30+ than when they were 22 and single. God bless those people who have the ability to do that. It takes the edge off of the frequent feelings of isolation.

  31. You think the never-married-no-kids perspective is tough, try being a divorced, noncustodial father with an ex who always makes sure there’s some reason the kids can’t make it on Father’s Day. I’ve had to quit going to Church that day because it’s just too hard to be constantly reminded that they’re supposed to be with me then.
    It’s bad enough the rest of the year, but Father’s Day is nothing but a steady stream of reminders.

  32. observer aka bih says:

    I have not visited here in a while. Great topic that resonates with me a lot, thank you. Males are designed (whether by God or evolution) to have the capacity to reproduce every few hours, give or take. Females are designed (by God or evolution) to have the capcity to reproduce once every nine months. Nothing has changed for 40k + years. What has change, however, is that farming isn’t necessary to survive in Western civ countries. Having males in the village to defend against neighbors is not necessary to survive anymore. So society has eliminated the *survival-based* motivations for males to reproduce, and males are left with their biological heritage of being motivated to engage in reproductive activity. Meanwhile, the costs of having a child are very high: a male must get married (surrender his sexual, romantic freedom against his species biological heritage), he subjects himself to the very probably high risk of divorce (having the state take away half of his “empire-building” efforts at the stroke of a pen), he subjects himself to escalating college and other costs associated with child-rearing. And none of it is motivated by subsistence or defense survival. So Millenial males arrive at adulthood having to reconcile deep conflicts among social, sexual, biological, and financial demands. One of the ways to reconcile this is that there are virtually unlimited amount of female sexual partners available, without undergoing the high social and financial costs of significantly-othering her them I sympathize with Millenial males. We socially shame Millenials for being “coddled” kids who “refuse to grow up.” Well, we created the social environment in which they live, right? Millenials are the product of our own modernity. Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Latin America are not experiencing the birthrate declines that Western Civ states are, or the Millenial phenomena. Yet, Western nations view those places as primitive, uncivil, etc. If Western nations want a higher birthrate, they are going to need to lower the financial and social costs of marriage.

  33. John Mansfield says:

    “Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Latin America are not experiencing the birthrate declines that Western Civ states are, or the Millenial phenomena.”

    Declines in birthrates are a global phenomenon that includes Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Rates are also falling in Africa, but much more slowly. When a phenomenon is seen in Vietnam, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Poland, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada, it is hard to give a lot of weight as a cause to any particular part of our nation’s culture that bugs us.

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