A new Harvard study about the dating habits of young adults, ages 18-25, reveals that most Millennials are looking for guidance on how to form loving relationships. The survey, which included over 2,000 young adults, found that about 70% of Millennials described wishing they had received more information from their parents about finding and keeping love.
Yet older generations "are failing ... miserably to prepare young people for romantic love, probably the most important thing they will do in life," according to study author Richard Weissbourd. As one 27-year-old respondent in the study said: “there’s this idea that somehow you develop a relationship naturally. But it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s incredibly hard.”
Millennials Need More Help Than Other Generations
In her book Generation Me, author Jean Twenge reiterates that more than any other generation, Millennials “spend their 20s (and sometimes 30s) in pointless dating, uncertain relationships, and painful breakups.” Even worse, this “cycle of meeting someone, falling in love, and breaking up is a formula for anxiety and depression.”
Parents and educators might misunderstand the severity with which romantic confusion affects Millennials. But “although previous generations also went through these relationship ups and downs, they did so for a much shorter time,” Twenge notes.
Much changed during the decades when Millennials were growing up. Marriage is no longer seen as an economic or social necessity, especially for women—who are more educated and more prevalent in the workforce than before. Moreover, 24% of Millennials experienced their parents’ divorce or were raised in single-parent homes. The widespread availability of birth control, including long-acting contraceptives and the morning-after pill, has heightened expectations for casual sex-without-strings. Media has become more sexually aggressive, and pornography more widely available. Relationships have been complicated by technology, including the pressures of social media and the illusion of constant contact.
All of these shifts create a relationship landscape that is confusing—with competing interests and expectations, and the lack of a recognizable pattern for relationships or even life progression. Unlike earlier generations, who learned from clearer relationship scripts, the lack of social norms about how to find a partner add to the sense of romantic bewilderment felt by Millennials. Only 8% of 18-25-year-olds surveyed report having ever casually dated. Although most Millennials desire marriage, they are marrying later, if at all. This later and less trend is at least in part caused by the uncertainty Millennials have about how to get to the loving, stable relationships suited for marriage.
Millennials’ difficulty in finding committed love—along with the pervasive view that “hookup culture” is the norm—may be related to the significantly lower levels of trust that young adults have compared to previous generations. A 2014 Pew survey found that just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.
Older Adults Can Help
Unlike their characterization as self-seekers looking to “hook up,” Millennials genuinely desire long-term partnership. But to get there, young adults need both guidance and confidence from their parents. The majority of Millennials in the Harvard study who described wanting their parents’ help sought insight about “how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship,” “how to have a more mature relationship,” “how to deal with breakups,” and “how to begin a relationship.” This is advice that any caring parent, or trusted adult, can provide.
What about parents of Millennials who have divorced, or are in a troubled marriage, and feel unable to offer their wisdom? The study suggests that even parents who have experienced relationship failures can and should give “insight into the ingredients of healthy relationships” if they have learned from their experiences.
And other older adults can also step in to fill the gap. The Harvard study found that 65% of young adults wished they had received guidance “on some emotional aspect of romantic relationships” from a health or sex-ed class at school, indicating their openness to hearing from other elders.
No matter how this important conversation begins, older generations have a responsibility to guide young people in making their most important and transformative life choices, including how to form healthy romantic relationships. And with Millennials more likely than older generations to still be living at home with their parents, there is still time to have those conversations. Millennials are ripe for the listening.
Kat Talalas is communications director for Women Speak for Themselves, a grassroots organization made up of nearly 70,000 women dedicated to reconnecting sex with marriage and children for the good of all people.