For young men, living at home and putting off marriage and family into their late 20s or early 30s is the new American normal, and it’s often attributed to stagnant wages and uncertainty in the job market.

And yet, all of us know young men in their late 20s who do work good jobs and yet come home each night to mom and dad, glad to find a warm meal and their clothes washed and put back in their old dressers. Many have girlfriends they’ve dated for years, but the word marriage does not come up. In fact, I’ve discovered that the age-old question, “Hey, when are you two going to tie the knot?” is embarrassing and puts everyone on the defensive. Junior’s mother immediately jumps in to say that the young people are nowhere near ready, what with their loans and the way they are just starting out in their careers.

There is more going on, it seems, than just economic pressures. After all, starting married life on a shoestring has always been celebrated for its particular charms. I know that I look back with a fond nostalgia on the first years of my marriage — memorable for our tiny apartment and tinier incomes, the occasional thrill of a new dress and the dented minivan rapidly filling with car seats. My husband and I were united in a perilous and thrilling undertaking — and well-armed with youth, which is blind to dangers that chill the hearts of older people.  

No, I don’t think young persons put off marriage because they have suddenly become sensible financial planners. I think they are quite logically responding to the general malaise of modern culture. Among other things, they’ve been taught that the highest expression of human freedom is our right to constantly reinvent ourselves according to our ever-changing whims. This right has evolved into a positive duty.

In the modern imagination, a man cannot promise his very self for the rest of his life because he’s not at all sure who he will be tomorrow, let alone 40 years in the future. He has been taught he’s free to change and evolve, and that he’s bound to do so because he’s weak and mutable. He is so perfectly convinced of this that vows have become meaningless. He knows that before long he’ll be someone else entirely and longing to go on to something — or someone — new. 

It is this depressing lack of confidence in themselves and their power to keep the rash promises born of their higher impulses that may be keeping them from marriage. Instead of throwing caution to the winds in a paroxysm of romance and making that outrageous sacrifice, they are drearily parsimonious, calculating the probabilities that a later marriage will give them less time to change their minds. They know very well what “changing their minds” looks like — too many of them having been subjected to their parents’ broken marriages.  

The result is that for young men, the marriage vow has become an eventuality related more to their aging girlfriends’ reproductive drives — that insistent biologic clock — or a polite response to a child already on the way. In the meantime, they’ve been experiencing a joyless “free love,” a phrase that is of course an oxymoron. As the inimitable G.K. Chesterton puts it: “As if a lover ever could be free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. … Modern sages offer to the lover … the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibilities. … They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one he wants.” 

Instead of audacious, grown-up lovers, then, these young men are perpetual adolescents practicing the most cheerless emotional economies. This is the furthest thing from healthy and natural. What is natural at that age is the audacity of a total and courageous commitment, powered by a romantic, even immortal, impulse to gift themselves to the object of their love. This is the stuff of joy.  

Chesterton was sure that the current state of modern affairs would not last, that the thrill of making a final choice and the adventure of swearing to a permanent self-discipline resonate too powerfully with all that is noble and gallant in our human nature. Let’s hope that he is right, and that before long we will find “the towering flame will rise from the harbor announcing that the reign of cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.”