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How marriage became a status symbol for millennials

How marriage impacts Americans' incomes
How marriage impacts Americans' incomes 01:31

Fewer millennials are getting married than in previous generations, but those who are tying the knot share one important trait: money. 

Not even 4 out of 10 millennials were married in 2016, compared with almost 6 out of 10 young adults in the late 1980s, representing a generational shift away from the altar, a recent paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis notes.

Millennials are far more likely to be living with a partner or to be single then their parents at their age, in other words, and their generation's shift away from marriage may be less a matter of choice and more the result of economic factors that have made the institution less approachable. Young adults born between 1981 and 1996 have remarkably similar tastes as previous generations -- they're just much poorer, the data show, and that's putting marriage out of reach for all except the wealthiest of their generation. 

Millennials who are getting married tend to have more wealth than in previous generations, the St. Louis Fed noted. Millennials who are married have median assets of $91,000, compared with $63,000 for the same age group in 1989 on an inflation-adjusted basis, the study found. Married millennial households also have half the student loan debt as single millennials, the study found. 

Which comes first: the marriage or the money?

That raises the question about whether marriage itself places millennials on a better financial footing, or whether those millennials who get hitched are already well off. One marriage expert says it's the latter. 

Millennial women who have achieved professional success feel they are in a better place to start looking for a marriage partner, according to Sami Wunder, a love and relationship coach who works with women.

"The women of today are not getting married for money," Wunder said. "She's financially secure and then she gets married for love or because she finds a man she knows she can share a life with. She chooses a partner who is a match to her."

Rich marrying the rich

As Wunder suggests, Americans increasingly are pairing up with partners who match them on a number of issues, including wealth and education. That's leading to "assortative mating," or when people pick spouses who have similar backgrounds.

That could also be boosting the wealth of married millennials compared with earlier generations. For instance, because college-educated adults are more likely to pair up with other college grads, that's super-charging their income and wealth, especially since the economy is handing bigger income gains to college-educated workers than to high-school grads.

Although people say they marry for love, the economic pressures on the millennial generation appear to weigh on their ability -- or willingness -- to get hitched, the Census found last year. 

Single women who haven't managed to carve out a career may have a harder time finding a marriage partner, Wunder said. But women who are ready to get married typically have ticked off the boxes in terms of education, wealth and stability, she added. 

"It's a very well thought out decision," she said of her clients. "If they are marrying, the desire is there to make it last and make it work."

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