Marriage Is The Last Thing On Your Mind When You Can't Find A Job


The struggles to get started in life in today's economy and what it means for relationships

"It's like being back in high school," Kim told me as we buzzed through Philadelphia in her bright blue 1991 Honda with its duct-taped back window and missing stereo. "It's like taking one step backward to take one step forward." She was talking about her return after college to her childhood bedroom and mom and dad in Upper Darby, PA.

It might as well be called "waithood" instead of adulthood. The recession is taking the wind out of the sails of this latest generation. Although Jack Shenker was describing Egyptian youth in The Observer when he used the term, American young adults are feeling some of the same frustrations. It's hard to feel like an adult when you're still living at home, unable to find a decent job. It's also hard to even begin to think about getting serious in a relationship when you can't afford to pay the rent, let alone dinner and a movie.

I'm just back from in-depth interviews with young people in Philadelphia who are four years out of high school, many of whom are freshly minted college graduates. Of the 60+ interviews we've done to date for our next book, only a handful of young people are working in their field. Many, like the two I spent several days with last week, are seriously underemployed--working as a waitress part-time or delivering Domino"s pizza until 4 am for $60 a night in tips, minus the cost of gas. With a college loan hanging over head, that's not going to cut it.

Money isn't everything, of course. But it does matter--especially to guys, who still are expected to initiate (and pay for) dates. It's hard to launch into a relationship when you're broke and living at home. Dustin, whom I interviewed, would like nothing more than to get married and start a big family, but that's not going to happen any time soon. At age 23, he has nearly $100,000 in college loans coming due (long story). Set aside for the moment the stigma (largely for guys) of living with your mother, it makes me wonder what woman would want to marry into that kind of built-in debt. Indeed, we heard several young people, both men and women, say that they are thinking twice about marrying because of the college debt burdens of their partners.

Like many of his peers facing a bleak job market, Dustin moved back home after college. His parents are happy to be able to help him out. Girls his own age, however, are less generous.  While guys seems to be largely ok with the prospect of picking up their girlfriend from her parents' house, many girls we talked with said that living at home was a deal-breaker for them. 

I feel for this generation. The 20s can be an exhilarating time of life, a time when you're making some of the biggest decisions of your life: where to work, whom to marry, whether to have kids, where to live. It can also be confusing and scary. This generation, however, has the added prospect of economic uncertainty rarely seen before. Their great-grandparents lived through the Depression and came out better for it, some say. But the difference today is that kids in the Depression moved from hardship to affluence as the postwar economy kicked into high gear. Today's generation is doing the opposite: they're moving from a childhood of affluence (even if only on paper) to a bleak economic future. That has to alter the equation.

Only time will tell how, and whether, they rebound. But I would wager that the path to relationships, partnerships, marriage and family is only going to get longer.