Boomers, GenX, Millenials-Meet the New Maine Family
My son Tristan, due home Saturday on spring break, has been struggling for days critiquing a book called The Improving State of the World. The book's premise — that things are actually getting better — drives him nearly apoplectic. (Can a nineteen-year-old become apoplectic? One prays not.)
Tristan shares with many people — most notably, so I've read, us Baby Boomers — a near certainty that the world is in fact going to Hell as rapidly as possible. The question that divides us is merely by what means we're getting there (e.g. in a handbasket, on the last chunk of Arctic Sea ice, etc.). Nonetheless we all manage to look happily forward to such humble joys as our forthcoming family reunion.
Which makes it all the more fascinating to peruse a recent Pew Center report on changing attitudes toward marriage and family in America. The report focuses on so-called Millennials: people born after 1980 who have reached adulthood in the 21st century. You wouldn't think there'd be a whole generation of them already, but there they are, aged 18-29, ripe and ready for statistical comparison to the preceding Generation X, defined here as the group aged 18-29 in 1997.
Surveys can be hard to digest at one swallow, so let me just give you a taste, seasoned with some Down East personal color.
For Millenials, the venerable institutions of marriage and parenthood have become, in the charming language of statisticians, "delinked." Here's what that means: Most 18-29-year-olds say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life. But only about one in three says the same about having a successful marriage.
That little data-point is just one stroke on a broad canvas of changing attitudes toward things like same-sex marriage, unmarried couples raising children, single parents, and new or unconventional family structures in general. If these trends hold, there may be no such thing as a "typical" Maine family in the decades ahead. Our children and grandchildren will grow in all kinds of different households. And in the view of most Millennials (and of me, too, for all that) they'll probably turn out just fine.
There's a fun page on the Pew site where you can take a brief survey and learn where you fit into the matrix, how your own views compare with those of other contemporary Americans. Survey participants, it turns out, fall into three broad and roughly equal segments: Accepters, Rejecters, and Skeptics. (These are explained in detail on the site.) All the usual suspects — liberals, churchgoers, whites, Democrats, what have you — come down pretty much where you'd expect. But there are a few surprises.
I had to laugh at my own results. I am "MORE [sic] accepting of changes in family structure than 91% of the public." No breaking news there: I'm a gay single father of three. I'll have my younger kids to myself for the first few days of college break because their mom is in London with her partner. I suppose we are just the sort of people who are undermining traditional marriage, though I don't actually recall any marriages that have crumbled under our influence.
For me, as for most Millennials, and I'd like to think most Mainers (a notably tolerant lot), all that really matters is whether the kids are all right. They certainly seem to be. So that's that, in my opinion.
There's no suggestion in the Pew findings that young adults actually disapprove of the Leave It To Beaver type of family. A remarkable 44% of them, however, believe that marriage is "becoming obsolete." Kind of ironic, given how hard Maine's LGBT community has been struggling for the right to marry. It's like, by the time we get invited to the party, everyone else will have gone home.
Speaking of which ... my son Tristan disapproves of my plan to buy an iPad 2. He seems to find it frivolous, unbecoming of someone my age. I assume he's just being grumpy, what with the bad book and all. Still I hate to disappoint him. I suppose I'll have to sneak out to Best Buy while he's sleeping. Probably he won't stay mad for long. I mean, we're family, right?