The Culture of the Single Millennial
Why are so many Millennials unmarried?
Why does the Millennial generation (people born between 1982-1996) have lower marriage and birth rates than previous generations? And when Millennials do get married, why is it at a later age than previous generations? Prominent periodicals like The Atlantic, Time, Washington Post and others have published articles trying to explain the phenomenon.
Some claim that the cause is economic – we graduated from college into the 2008 Recession, we have a lot of student loan debt, and we receive stagnant wages as housing prices soar. Financial difficulty prevents young people from getting married. This is of course part of the problem, but it is wrong. People got married at a higher per capita rate during the Great Depression and the brutal wars in history, which were much tougher than anything we endured.
Some argue that the cause is increased education, feminism and careerism. People want to focus on establishing a stable career in their youth, including women in equal if not greater numbers than men, which makes them delay family formation. This is also a partial explanation. There is no reason a person cannot pursue education and career while married. If the issue is about focus, we would argue that living “the single life” is even more of a distraction from schoolwork. Even if we concede the argument about focus, it still does not explain the large number of Millennials who are now in their late 30s, well-established in their careers, but still remain unmarried.
Sometimes Millennial women and men blame each other. Millennial women claim that men of their generation are immature, afraid of commitment, hedonistic, underemployed and effete. Millennial men claim that women of their generation are delusional, fussy, promiscuous, disloyal and narcissistic. Both sides make valid criticisms, but they are simply pointing out symptoms of the problem, not the cause.
All of these explanations are missing a large piece of the puzzle.
Millennials delayed marriage and family formation because of the culture they grew up with, which altered their environment and expectations.
Young Adult Culture
In the early twentieth century, psychologists correctly posited that there are phases between childhood and adulthood called adolescence and then young adulthood, when a human being physically and mentally transitions into full adulthood.
In the later twentieth century, a popular culture was created around young adulthood, especially after the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. During these years you dress in fashionable clothing, speak in slang, date, travel, party and “experiment.” Corporate America fully supported this idea. Think of all the money to be made selling young people new and changing fashion, tickets to shows and concerts, exotic trips to “discover” themselves and youth-specific media and accessories. Now young people are expected to spend at least a decade having these fun experiences before “settling down.”
Mass media started promoting this youth culture, which grew stronger and peaked with the Millennial generation. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the beverage and tourism industries would create a Casual Sex Industrial Complex. For the generations that grew up with this media, these expectations seemed like an essential part of life and failure to realize them would make a person feel unfulfilled.
Music, TV Shows and Movies
The things you are exposed to as a child stick with you forever.
Recall that before the Internet became mainstream, we were limited in the media we could consume. We watched the television shows that were broadcast to us on a few channels, and the movies that Hollywood studios released to theaters.
Being a Millennial means you grew up watching popular TV shows like Seinfeld (1989-1998), Friends (1994-2004), Sex and the City (1998-2004) and Entourage (2004-2011). These shows portrayed people in their 30s and 40s living in the big city, constantly cycling through girlfriends or boyfriends. They portrayed casual sex and one-night stands. The hit TV show Will and Grace (1998-2006) had the same premise but featured homosexual characters. We watched these stories as children and thought this was a normative adult lifestyle.
Hollywood released several movies which portrayed college, and even high school, as a time to party and have casual sex with multiple partners. Some of them include: American Pie (1999), Van Wilder (2002) and Old School (2003) which was about men in their 30s throwing fraternity parties. The Girls Gone Wild franchise was launched in 1997.
There were also movies that portrayed people in their 30s and 40s having casual sex with multiple partners, such as: Wedding Crashers (2005), Friends With Benefits (2011), No Strings Attached (2011), and many more.
Leaked sex tapes of famous, wealthy socialites became a trend during the Millennial generation’s coming-of-age years. Paris Hilton’s sex tape was leaked in 2004. Kim Kardashian’s sex tape was leaked in 2007 and launched her career as a famous reality-TV star. Both socialites were already active promoting nightclub and party culture.
In our childhood we listened to music and watched music videos which portrayed drugs, drinking, and casual sex. I’ll never forget going to my first college party in 2001. When the DJ played the 1993 song “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” by Snoop Dogg, Kurupt and Nate Dogg, everyone on the dancefloor – people of all races and socio-economic backgrounds – enthusiastically sang along to it. We memorized the lyrics of this song the same way children memorize a nursery rhyme. “Ain’t No Fun” is a song about having sex with women you don’t really respect and then letting your friends have sex with them. I doubt most of those partiers intended to memorize the song, but a lot of us just heard it played on the radio repeatedly when we were growing up. The fact that we could sing along to it verbatim in a drunken low-inhibition haze illustrates how much we subconsciously internalized this media and its message.
Between all of these TV shows, songs and movies, many in our generation were raised to believe that you cannot possibly marry the first person you date in high school or college. This expectation became a self-fulfilling prophecy for most of us.
The Tech Contribution
Millennials were the first generation to grow up with unlimited free online pornography. The pornographic website Naughty America began production in 2001, Bang Bros in 2002, and Brazzers in 2005. The streaming pornographic websites Pornhub and XVideos went live in 2007. It became a common habit for many boys (and some girls) in our generation to watch pornographic movies online and masturbate to them daily. Several recent studies have proven that this habit has strong psychological, neurological and even physical effects on young people. As mentioned above, we subconsciously internalized the media we grew up with. Now imagine what happened to our sexual expectations and goals when exposed to a barrage of limitless pornography.
Millennials were the first generation to have access to swipe dating apps on their smartphones. Tinder was released in 2012, Bumble in 2014. When the Internet first entered people’s homes in the late 1990s, the media and society at large considered talking to strangers online dangerous. Looking for romance online was ridiculed as something a desperate “nerd” or a pervert would do. The perception slowly shifted as our lives revolved more around computers and the Internet. When online dating became available on the smartphone, the process accelerated. Today, in 2021, online dating has become the norm. People are actually shocked when a couple meet each other in real life.
Millennials slowly lost the ability to meet one another offline after becoming accustomed to using dating apps. A strange new phenomenon is young men and women ignoring each other in real life, while looking for each other on their phones. We’ve all become as avoidant and antisocial in person as the creators of the technologies that brought us here.
The process of looking for a mate became like playing a video game on your phone. People who used to struggle to find dates were now setting up multiple dates per week. They became addicted to dating for its own sake. In other words, dating became a self-contained activity, not a step in the marriage process. If you are unhappy, you could dispose of someone and try to replace them at the click of a button, which makes commitment and compromise more difficult.
These apps affected women and men differently. Any time a young woman wanted romance, sex, or even just attention, she could go on one of these apps and receive a flood of offers from men. Some women complained that men were getting too aggressive and sending vulgar messages. Women had a buffet of options that was not available in real life, which drove up their expectations, but also made them wearier since most of these options were not good. Many women became jaded after years of meeting men on apps, dating temporarily, building up hopes of starting a family and then breaking up and having their heart broken. Going through this cycle enough makes a person emotionally broken.
It was much harder for men to succeed with these apps, except for a small minority of men who greatly benefited from them. Men were disappointed to find out that women on these apps gravitated towards a small percentage of elite men. A lot of men also complained that women were becoming flakey - they would talk to men online for attention, but never actually meet up with them or take them seriously. All the hours staring at their screens started to seem like a waste of time. A couple of years after the release of Tinder, we saw the popularization of online movements dedicated to Incels (involuntary celibates), MGTOW (Men Going their Own Way), and forums hosting discussions about “hypergamy,” Stoicism and Looksmaxxing.
The young adult casual sex culture would not be meant for everyone. A segment of unsuccessful young men withdrew from romance altogether and sedated themselves with video games and online pornography. The expectation was already high, but these apps pushed it over the edge. Unfortunately, some of the Incels took a more violent approach, as occurred in the Isla Vista Massacre on May 23, 2014.
Image is Everything
A culture of physical fitness, advanced cosmetic techniques, and surgical procedures became widespread in our generation. Gyms became mainstream among non-athletes beginning in the 1980s. We witnessed the rise and spread of popular retail gyms, such as 24 Hour Fitness which was founded in 1983, LA Fitness in 1984, and Equinox in 1991.
This culture of superficiality was reinforced by the rise of social media, which allowed Millennials to show off pictures of their beautiful selves for validation, and also to stare at other, more beautiful, people. Facebook went live in 2004, Instagram in 2010. Kids spent hours looking at curated, photoshopped images of models in exotic locations or their peers at fun parties.
How did Millennials react to the seemingly infinite amount of beautiful people available online or in certain cities? Some could ignore it. Some became addicted to excitement and chasing physical pleasures. Some continued to seek a serious relationship but added a high physical standard to their list of requirements in a life partner. A person in the latter category might think: “Surely if there are so many attractive people around, I should be able to end up with one of them, right?” Again, it is an issue of culture and environment molding young people’s expectations.
When I was in high school, college and even into graduate school or working in an office, I would often hear women say things like: “There are no good-looking guys in this school!” The men said similar things too, although not as much. The truth was that in all of these campuses or offices, the majority of both men and women were decent looking and a good match for one another. Were they expecting to be surrounded by models? High school and college are one thing, but it was shocking hearing this from people well into their 20s. Weren’t they supposed to outgrow this thinking? Even when I was young and superficial myself, I sensed a delusional and unsustainable mentality in our generation. It turns out that even in their late 30s, many Millennials never outgrew this mentality.
It is tragic that so many of the youth were dismissed as unattractive unjustly. The problem was that Millennials had a very specific and crass view of what was attractive. Millennials did not appreciate actual, natural aesthetics, but rather a very cheap, plastic, commercialized and almost trashy look which they learned from photoshopped Instagram photos, reality TV shows and pornography. They liked “hot” not “beautiful.”
The Loss of Religion and Shame
Of course, we cannot neglect to mention the steep decline in faith and even a sense of shame among Millennials. Our generation has a lower rate of religiosity and belief in God than previous generations did. Most of the major world religions encourage marriage and procreation while condemning sex outside of marriage.
Religion aside, even a secular sense of shame and fear of a bad reputation in the community died out in the face of the Casual Sex Industrial Complex. Why be ashamed of certain activities or the number of sexual partners you have if the mainstream culture promotes such behavior? A large number of Millennials no longer felt shame fornicating, living with a partner before marriage, or even avoiding marriage altogether because, as they reasoned, marriage is nothing but a legal contract.
Atheism and religious skepticism have always existed, but during the years when Millennials were coming of age, atheism became more public, more aggressive and organized. Within a few years span, several high-profile books were published which sold millions of copies, including: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (published in 2004), The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (published in 2006) and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (published in 2007).
The Addicted Millennial
While the use of narcotics has always existed, it really became mainstream and acceptable during our generation. In the past, experimenting with narcotics was something fringe or rebellious. People who did drugs looked and acted differently - imagine the “Hippie” Movement in the 1960s, gangsters in dangerous neighborhoods or Metalheads in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, however, we started to see common people get involved with drugs.
When I moved into my college dormitory in 2001, I soon learned that more than half of the students in my hallway smoked marijuana and were very open about it. These kids were the most plain-looking individuals you can imagine and most of them grew up in safe suburban neighborhoods. While past generations also smoked cannabis, the strains Millennials used were much more potent and some were synthetic. As the years went on, the list of drugs that became acceptable expanded. Suddenly entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and popular podcasts were discussing the merits of psilocybin and ayahuasca to foster creativity and to explore the depths of your mind.
Between 2012-2019, six states in the U.S. legalized the use of marijuana. In 2019-2020, several major cities in the U.S. decriminalized psilocybin.
While privileged Millennials indulged in drugs of exploration, an Opioid Epidemic ravaged impoverished areas with high unemployment during the 2010s. Thousands of people became addicted to heroin, fentanyl and pain relievers prescribed by doctors. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths during these years. As drug use became more common, a greater number of Millennials would embrace a lifestyle that wasn’t conducive to childcare.
Studies have also shown that Millennials drink alcohol more than previous generations. This is unsurprising because alcohol was the foundation of the party and “hook up” culture we grew up with. Most of the casual sex was done under the influence of alcohol. Alcoholism is of course destructive to the mind, body and family life.
There was a similar addiction to technology which could be as powerful and distracting. Several books recently exposed the addictive power of social media apps like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Young people spend hours per day on these apps.
Properly raising children requires parents to wake up early in the mornings and perform dull chores that go on for several years. It also requires focus and presence. People accustomed to chemically altering their minds and irregular sleep schedules will have great difficulty transitioning to a life of boring routines and structure. Many Millennials subconsciously avoided marriage and having children simply to preserve their lifestyle – whether they were addicted to drugs, alcohol, social media, or “hooking up” with new partners.
Environment Sets the Tone
Environment matters. When the environment around you does not seem conducive to serious courtship and marriage, then there is a high probability you will not seek those things. On the other hand, if you see the majority around you acting more mature and marrying earlier, then you will seek potential life partners from the outset and look for a different set of qualities.
A lot of young men, being naturally competitive, may not necessarily envision a life of casual sex but become seduced into it after observing their peers engaging in the lifestyle. Young men enter a sort of arms race against one another. Many of them will think: “Why should I settle down early when the other guys are hooking up with so many girls now? Are they cooler or better than me? I have to prove that I can do it to!” This will lead him down the rabbit hole of “hook up culture” which could become addictive. It may take years to undo this lifestyle.
Young women compete with each other too. If they think showing off their bodies on social media or having sex with the more popular guys will raise their status or secure a higher status man, then many of them will act accordingly.
It is difficult to commit to a partner unless you sense loyalty from that person. An environment of partying and easy online dating does not exude loyalty, but rather, opportunism and fleeting pleasures. This makes everyone involved more paranoid and avoidant.
What happened when Millennials wanted to be serious? Millennials grew up to expect excitement and passion in relationships because of all the media described above. We were also taught in school that we should pursue careers that excite us - it was a running theme in our lives. Millennials who were shy, introverted, serious, or late bloomers would always feel like they were trying to catch up or fight an uphill battle.
Past generations may have been happy to meet someone compatible and stable, but a large percentage of Millennials sought an adrenaline rush in their relationships. These kinds of exciting relationships are often temporary and unstable, so some Millennials were delayed in marriage and childbearing in pursuit of them. It was yet another item to add to their checklist of things to do before settling down.
The age at which Millennial men and women were ready to marry also presented some issues. As stated above, the standards that men were expected to fulfill were very high. Women in their 20s had an easy time attracting men and dating them, but men had it much harder during that age, except for a small elite. When Millennials reached their 30s, the women were ready to settle down and meet a nice guy with a stable job. She’s been through it all and wants to move on now. The men, however, were entering their prime in their 30s. Instead of using their newfound power to get married, many of these men felt the need to catch up and fulfill unresolved desires. Most millennial men grew up feeling behind the women of their generation. This led to the common situation where men and women in their 30s would date, and the woman would be disappointed when the man was not ready to commit and marry her.
The greatest irony of the Casual Sex Industrial Complex is that on the eve of the Coronavirus quarantines in 2020, studies showed that Millennials and the generation after them were starting to have less sex than previous generations did at their age. Young people were not only avoiding marriage, but also the physical act of sex itself. Bad experiences and too much exposure to sexual media made people numb and took the mystique out of the real experience. The Internet gave Millennials the illusion of unlimited opportunity, but the reality was quite different in the end.
There are exceptions to the trends discussed here, but they support our thesis, because the Millennials who did marry early were often religious or from immigrant backgrounds, meaning they grew up with a different culture or set of expectations from the mainstream. These trends were also more pronounced in large cosmopolitan cities like New York City or Los Angeles, than in smaller towns and rural areas. There are apartment buildings in big cities filled with Millennials who are attractive and accomplished, but live alone with their dogs or cats.
The Millennials who were plugged into the mainstream culture yet still married early were often people who managed to easily satisfy their expectations early before settling down. Most others needed extra time to go down their checklist of expected activities and partners before feeling ready to marry. Don’t underestimate the power of anxiety stemming from a fear of missing out. Some people became addicted to casual dating and never even desired to get married.
Of course, we concede that the economic and education points raised in the beginning of this article play a role, but we wanted to highlight the overlooked importance of the Casual Sex Industrial Complex.
So why do Millennials get married less and later? Millennials experienced a perfect storm of stagnant wages, soaring housing prices, less religion, less shame, rising education costs, beginning their careers at a later age, technologies that made them more introverted, a culture of self-indulgence, raised expectations in a future partner, the 2008 Recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, and most importantly, growing up with the culture propagated by the Casual Sex Industrial Complex.