Hayes: Marriage may be closer than we think


Bob Hayes, Assistant Opinion Editor

It is largely indisputable that partying represents a fundamental part of the college experience among today’s undergraduates. On a typical weekend night, students across campus gather to hang out with friends, drink alcohol and, often, to find an appealing guy or girl with whom to spend some quality time. Usually, these “quality times” are limited to one-night hook-ups followed by an extended period of sparse — if any — communication. Although the shy guy meeting the coy girl at a frat party may occasionally lead to an unlikely relationship, it is clear that marriage is on few college students’ minds as they embark on their seemingly endless journeys of indulgence and disappointment.

Marriage?! Why should any college student feel the need to think about that? On the surface, I think the idea sounds as crazy as you do, but recent data coupled with growing cultural trends show that our social decisions in college may have frighteningly proximate implications on our potential marital futures.

In a Sept. 29 article on Nate Silver’s popular data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Ben Casselman examines the Pew Research Center’s disappointing finding that the marriage rate continues to decline in the United States. “In 1960, nearly 90 percent of 25- to 34-year olds had been married; today, that figure is barely 50 percent,” Casselman says.

The obvious counterargument to this data is that people are simply choosing to marry later, which I will explore soon. Regardless, the Pew report, titled “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married,” “estimated that a quarter of today’s young people — those between ages 25 and 34 — will never marry, or at least still won’t have married by age 55,” Casselman says. This is an obviously much larger total than in previous decades.

In order to infer why fewer people are getting married, we must first understand why adults increasingly marry at later ages than they have in the past. If we dive into the Pew report itself, we find, “For young adults who want to get married, financial security is a significant hurdle.”

Devastating stories of marriages that fall victim to financial difficulties have become more apparent as the world grows connected, making job security and economic well-being an increasingly important facet when considering marriage. According to the Pew report, 78 percent of women cite “a steady job” as “very important” when searching for a partner, which was the top choice among women and the second-highest choice among men, behind “similar ideas about having and raising children.”

This trend of marriages skewing older means that many young adults and college students do not even consider tying the knot as an imminent possibility. Concurrently, the growing social appropriateness of hooking up in place of dating — accelerated by popular cultural figures like Barney Stinson in “How I Met Your Mother” and Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” — further postpones consideration of serious relationships.

Interestingly, I have noticed that far more Northwestern students are interested in a relationship than they choose to display. Yet, the culture is established by an odd sort of prisoners’ dilemma: As soon as some people choose to enter the “hook-up” market, others feel pressured to join their friends in seeking immediate gratification over steadily developing relationships, which further exacerbates the problem.

As fun as the hook-up scene can feel at the time, when the weekly parties end and occupational life begins, young adults often face a startling realization: The limitless options of potential mates have suddenly transformed into a mundane set of intergenerational coworkers. For most people, by far the best chance to meet potential mates that we will ever experience comes during the four years when hardly anyone has begun to consider the possibility of marriage.

I am not at all making the laughable assertion that students should show up to a party looking for a spouse. However, the undeniable prevalence of hook-up culture in college is a deceptively major reason for Pew’s conclusion that today’s adults postpone and ultimately fail to marry more often than ever before.

Although the Pew report should not induce a state of emergency on college campuses, it does invoke some interesting questions about how our decisions right now affect our futures as husbands and wives. College represents a rapid four years of growth from a curious, immature child to a hardened, developed adult, and marriage can perhaps be added to the list of astonishingly imminent life choices faced by students.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].