Let me preempt you here: You’re right, I probably haven’t read everything written about millennials. Whatever fibers (tendons? nerves?) are strained by eye-rolling wouldn’t be able to handle all that, in my case. And, in fact, I invite you to propose other contenders for this title. But what I’ve got here is worse than every New York Times Style Section trend piece combined.
The New York Post (I know, what was I expecting?) recently published this drivel-filled collection of buzzwords, false equivalencies, and irresponsible statistics, all delivered without a hint of self-awareness for the condescending bias leaking out of every sentence. Headline:
What follows is a series of snarky asides and sweeping generalizations leveled against 80 million people. The thesis: Using Girls (the fictional HBO show intentionally exaggerated for comic effect) as the smoking gun—given its tendency lately to depict hasty marriages that result in even hastier divorces—the author argues that millennials don’t take marriage seriously, evidenced either by the fact that they engage in too many so-called starter marriages (colloquially defined as any marriage that lasts less than five years and doesn’t result in children), or by the fact that they’re not getting married enough.
Now, I actually like Girls, but I know that a show that either self-consciously plays with unflattering archetypes at best, or ignorantly misrepresents most of its cohorts’ lived experience at worst, should not be the basis of any serious journalism beyond television criticism. Don’t blame that show on us, and don’t blame the ongoing erosion of traditional marriage on us, either.
A quick search will reveal a 1994 New York Times article that explains “Starter marriages have been in evidence for generations,” a 2002 book that examines the prevalence of starter marriages among Gen-Xers, and a 2014 Guardian article that examines millennial starter marriages with some actual interviews with actual divorced millennials, and not just the imagined motivations of television caricatures. Plus plenty of other articles that examine changing societal marital norms in a far less laughable way.
But surely the Post uses some hard data to support its vague and incendiary claim? I’m glad you asked.
A recent study found that 43 percent of millennials supported a form of marriage that allowed couples to easily split up after two years, while a full third were open to “marriage licenses” valid—like mortgages—for set periods of time. It’s an impressive figure, especially when you consider just a third of respondents still believe that marriage is “till death do us part.”
Aside from the fact that these figures aren’t backed by a source or a hyperlink or anything, let’s consider what’s being obfuscated here. Almost half of couples support “a form of marriage that allow[s]” couples to split up—you mean, divorce? This is the form of marriage we currently have! And while I couldn’t find the exact phrasing of these questions, I did find another article that clarifies that the “just a third of respondents” who take the “till death do us part” vow seriously think that divorce should be made illegal! These are not people who support a romantic, old-school style of life partnership—these are people who want marriage to be a terrifyingly irreversible life sentence that, for example, doesn’t allow battered individuals to leave their abusers.
After that, Kauffman finds a new target: “With same-sex marriage now legal, has making marriage more inclusive eroded its traditional sense of exclusivity?” A statement that is both true (marriage is literally less exclusive) and also completely beside the point. And then he gets to atheism. And then the lack of marriage among millennials (huh?). And then the fact that older generations were more likely to be married. And then the rampant instances of divorce among millennials’ parents.
From there, he gets in a few more digs at Young People with another set of unsubstantiated statistics:
Yet another recent study revealed American millennials to be among the best-educated—though least-skilled—demographic groups in the developed world. Compared to both their developed-world counterparts and older Americans, millennials suck at basics like reading, math and technology. The result? A millennial workforce worrisomely ill-equipped for the marketplaces awaiting them.
What? Maybe he hasn’t heard that “A Startling Number Of Millennials Are Overqualified For Their Jobs,” or that “millennials not only have a risk of being overqualified for a job, but they also have a risk of being too overqualified to be hired.” Or that, you know, the last sentence in that paragraph above does not at all follow from the earlier sentences.
Ultimately, the author proves he never really understood the phenomenon at the heart of his piece (or how the permanence of the internet works) when he claims that “for most of American history, ‘starter’ marriages—and their subsequent divorces—would stain and stigmatize literally until the grave. But today, they’re merely early-adulthood indiscretions (almost) as forgettable as a Facebook status update.”
So is he chastising millennials for partaking in too many “starter marriages”—or for not suffering enough after them? The oldest millennials are currently 35, and the youngest just 20. This means that many of them who might have a starter marriage haven’t gotten divorced yet—or even married!
Marriage norms are changing. But casting that evolution in a negative light simply because any millennials who might have already gotten married and divorced aren’t taking the hit hard enough (based on what criteria?) is not just unfair, it’s really really stupid.