What the statistics don’t answer is why Americans are delaying and opting out of marriage.
Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, posits that young women would rather hook up than be in serious relationships, because the latter could hinder their careers. “The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame,” Rosin wrote in The Atlantic last year, “and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success.”
It’s politically correct to view young women as primarily motivated by ambition and money — if Disney followed our new cultural authority, the princesses in their movies would end up in corner offices with 1 percenter salaries. But it’s apparently a horrific social faux pas to imply that young women might be happier if they concentrated more on finding a spouse than on starting a career, as Susan Patton found out when her March Daily Princetonian article advising young women to “find a husband on campus before you graduate” went viral (and not in a good way).
Now, I’m hardly on Team Patton — I’m a 25-year-old single woman who has no regrets about not nabbing an MRS. degree along with my B.A. — but I find Rosin’s analysis curious. For one thing, it’s 2013, not 1913: Plenty of women juggle boyfriends or husbands and sometimes children along with high-powered jobs. And second, based on hundreds of conversations (and a few too many Pinterest boards boasting pictures of engagement rings and wedding gowns), I believe there are many young women who, at least among other women, are willing to admit that, yes, they do want to get married. They might be quiet about that desire in most settings, perhaps because “I’d like to get married” is more effective as a break-up line than as a conversation starter with a decent chunk of young men these days. But they’re generally interested in both career achievements and marriage.
The Bachelorette suggests other reasons besides career ambitions that may be making young adults hesitant to say “I do.” In the last episode, one of the male contestants, Brooks, told the show’s host, Chris Harrison, he was conflicted about how he actually felt about Des. Harrison asked Brooks whether his parents’ divorce could have made him afraid to commit. Brooks adamantly denies he’s afraid to commit, but many young adults’ fears of divorce are playing a role in how they view marriage. “There’s a lot of fear percolating around marriage,” Hannah Seligson, author of A Little Bit Married, told USA Today in 2010. Cornell University professor Sharon Sassler, who has studied young adults who cohabitate, arrived at a similar finding. “Across the board, it was just a lot of this free-floating anxiety about divorce,” Sassler told the Huffington Post in a 2011 interview. “A lot of them said they only wanted to marry once.”
The Bachelorette, no doubt inadvertently, also showcases another reason young adults aren’t getting married: money. The show is wildly lavish, splurging on designer duds and trips to exotic locales for Bachelorettes and their suitors. The last Bachelorette, Emily Maynard, received an engagement ring valued at $68,000, according to US Weekly. While most young adults realize they can’t match a network’s budget for a hit series, there is social pressure to keep up with the Joneses and throw a memorable wedding bash. And that doesn’t come cheap: The average wedding costs $28,427, according to TheKnot.com.
Furthermore, young adults are wary of marrying before they feel financially established — and financial security is something the recession has put even further out of some young Americans’ reach. According to a 2012 poll commissioned by Generation Opportunity, 23 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds put off getting married for financial reasons. By pairing the quest for a spouse with extravagant materialism, The Bachelorette is further fueling the unfortunate mindset that financial success must pre-date marriage — a viewpoint that particularly hurts those who are low-income and thus stand to benefit most from the economic boon that often comes with marriage.
Sure, some women watch The Bachelorette because they enjoy the crazy cast members and situations, not because they’re pining for a ring. And of course, some women, just like some men, are just fine with delaying marriage — or never marrying at all. But it’s a little strange that we live in a culture where it’s more socially acceptable for a young woman to admit enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey than for her to express a desire to get married. The success — and cultural infiltration — of the show suggests that if Des gets a ring in tonight’s finale, plenty of women will be wishing they were in her place.