Briana Babbitt and her husband Henry had been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for years by the time the pandemic hit.
The couple met studying abroad in India their junior year of college, and starting in 2016, they began thinking about returning and traveling throughout the continent. It was a “bucket list” trip, Babbitt said, and after they got married, they started thinking of it as the last big trip they would take before starting a family.
But the pandemic didn’t let up as quickly as they expected. At first, they thought they might still be able to travel as planned in early 2021, but as months passed and spring turned to summer, it became clear they had some reassessing to do.
Babbitt and Henry decided they would skip the trip for now, and fast forward to something they intended to do in a year or so: have children. “I didn’t want to sit around indefinitely and not know when borders would reopen or when it would be safe to travel internationally again,” Babbitt, 28, said. “So, Henry and I talked over the summer and I said, ‘Why don’t we push that [trip] off and think about having a family earlier?’”
When we spoke in late December, she was about 12 weeks pregnant.
In November, a friend of mine from college tweeted: “Every single time I log on to Facebook dot com someone new I know has gotten engaged.” I’d had the same experience. Over the last nine months, it’s seemed that almost every third person I went to high school or college with was announcing a major life event. I’ve scrolled through photos of an old friend’s elopement in a Utah state park, of another friend’s wedding in the church where I made my first Communion; I’ve seen at least half a dozen engagement selfies, and a handful of couples posing in front of new homes they had just purchased in the suburbs.
It could be that my peers and I are just arriving at “that age”—our late 20s, a time when people often begin to get more serious about their partners and enter the next phase of adult life. But for many, the pandemic raised the stakes of these relationships, and spurred existential questions like, Where do I want to live? Whom do I want to live with? What kind of life do I want to have with them? Perhaps these questions would have been met with the same answers were 2020 a normal year, although they might have taken longer or received more consideration. But during the pandemic it seemed as if everyone’s answer was a pivot toward adulting: buying the house, popping the question, finally moving in together.
As a generation, millennials often never reach some of these milestones, and if they do, it’s usually significantly later than their parents and grandparents. Millennials typically date their partners for a longer period of time before marriage than other age groups, preferring instead to prioritize things like career development and travel before “settling down.” In 2019, the average millennial man was 30 at the time of his wedding, and the average millennial woman was 28. That’s three years older than the average age of marriage in the early aughts. Many millennials choose not to get married at all. Similarly, millennials are having children at a much lower rate—or having them later in life—mostly because they can’t afford them.
Other milestones that require a degree of financial stability—like owning a home—are also thought to be out of reach for millennials, either because they’re burdened with more student debt than any previous generation, or because they prefer to spend money on “experiences” (like a trip to Asia) or everyday luxuries like avocado toast, depending on whom you ask.
“I knew the proposal was going to come at some point, but I wasn’t expecting the timing of it.”
But, while the pandemic has slowed everything down generally speaking, resulting in many young people moving back in with their parents, losing their jobs, or otherwise deferring major life decisions commonly associated with adulthood, for a group of them, it has sped things up. If you’ve been quarantining with your boyfriend for nine months, why not move in together? And if you were already living together before the pandemic, perhaps it felt like the right time to get engaged.
“I knew the proposal was going to come at some point, but I wasn’t expecting the timing of it,” Kristen Marchese, my best friend from childhood, told me when I called her to ask about getting engaged in May and buying a Connecticut home not long after. She and her now-fiancé have been together for five years.
“I guess he was like, ‘All right, I guess we can live together and not leave the house for three months and still like each other, so this is as good a time as any,’” she joked.
A spokesperson for Catbird, a popular jeweler for millennial clients, said the company’s wedding annex has seen a “double digit percentage growth” in appointments for engagement and wedding rings since reopening over the summer as compared to the year before. “Initially, the increase in appointments led us to believe it was because our annex was closed for a period of time and the demand had built,” the spokesperson said. “With more lasting growth, our theory is that relationships have really solidified this year and big life decisions have as well—moves, financial choices, jobs.”
Ceremony, another jewelry company that targets the millennial age demographic, has seen an uptick in overall ring sales too, and has found that many customers have been willing to spend more on a ring during the pandemic than before. A representative for the brand guessed the trend had something to do with people spending less on the wedding ceremony itself during the pandemic (since weddings tend to be smaller and less elaborate, if they happen at all) or because of cutting down on other spending.
The last nine months or so have also seen a rise in millennials buying homes, according to Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting firm. Miller believes this is largely due to young people leaving cities in the beginning of the pandemic and buying property elsewhere. “A big part of this outbound migration was an acceleration of what would’ve been a typically organic trend in three to five years of millennials [moving] to the suburbs to buy a house, start a family,” Miller said. “Instead, it was compressed into a roughly six-month window.”
Of course, it is only useful to talk about “millennial” behaviors up to a point. The millennial generation has been shaped by precarity and multiple economic crises, but buying real estate and expensive engagement rings has always been available to the group of millennials that enjoys some amount of class privilege. Ally Sillins, a Google programs manager based in San Francisco, told me that the pandemic hadn’t affected her and her husband’s plans to get married and buy a house in 2020 at all; they had planned to do so all along. Though the other people I spoke to worked in less lucrative fields—education, nonprofits, restaurants—they were upwardly mobile, with college degrees and savings accounts. Miller, the real estate appraiser, said that this group of people was more able to “pivot quickly” during the pandemic with regards to moving or buying a home.
That said, the reasons why many people seem to be doing these things right now are sufficiently complex, having to do with losing jobs and finding new ones, saving money on things like travel and dining out, and the creation of certain economic incentives, like the government’s temporary suspensions of federal student loan payments.
Marchese, a teacher in Connecticut, told me that low interest rates were one reason she and her fiancé were able to afford a home now; were it not for that, she probably wouldn’t have bought a home for another two to three years. Originally, she had planned to do so after her wedding—not before. Babbitt and her husband experienced some turbulence with their jobs this year: Henry lost a part-time job in the service industry and Babbitt changed jobs in the nonprofit sector. But she said her new job feels more stable, and—crucially—it includes paid parental leave. Suddenly, it seemed like a good time to have their first child.
There are more subtle, abstract explanations for some of these choices, too. When I spoke to the subjects of this piece, I thought about the sometimes nebulous factors that form our desires, and the kind of lifestyle to which peers in my age and class cohort are taught to aspire. I was interested in why many people I knew had traded in some of the things we were supposed to like as members of the urban precariat—artisanal products and expensive lattes with alternative milks; renting cars, renting furniture, and renting apartments—for what seemed like more conventional objects: homes, property, domesticity. There is a degree of inevitability to this transition, but I was jarred by the sudden acceleration of it.
“If you really want to be married and you’re single, then the thing that’s going to appeal to you is a lifestyle image that itself is the replacement for that life milestone—the kitchen stuff, the amazing experiences, the trips.”
In her long-form essay “What Is Lifestyle?”, writer Daisy Alioto argues that “lifestyle” is often deployed in trend pieces about how coronavirus has altered people’s habits, usually without describing the complex systems that enable those lifestyles, or even what we mean when we use the word. By her definition, lifestyle formation is the practice of expressing our values through the accumulation of objects, of which we in turn broadcast images endlessly on social media. And of course, retailers and marketing companies tell us which objects correspond to which values.
“If you really want to be married and you’re single, then the thing that’s going to appeal to you is a lifestyle image that itself is the replacement for that life milestone—the kitchen stuff, the amazing experiences, the trips,” Alioto told me. “Sometimes the way that’s framed is, ‘You can’t have this life milestone so here’s this lifestyle instead.’”
A prime example of what Alioto describes is the proliferation of KitchenAid stand mixers, Le Creuset dutch ovens, and the Instagram-ubiquitous Our Place pan, some of which Amanda Mull called “the new trophies of domesticity” in a January 2020 piece for the Atlantic. These are products that brands have told millennials—who, more than a generation with a coherent narrative, are a marketing demographic—will help them project adulthood in the absence of its traditional markers.
The pandemic was the first time those more traditional markers came within reach for some people, be it because of unexpected savings that could, for once, be “invested” rather than merely spent, or because of unanticipated shifts in the housing market. Other ways to signify “lifestyle” had also been stripped away, Alioto reminded me, with the pandemic eliminating the possibility of Instagrammable vacation destinations and dining inside at an aesthetically pleasing restaurant, for example.
And priorities had suddenly shifted. During the pandemic, there was little time for any uncertainty or wavering. It seemed that choices were made swiftly and definitively, without waiting for the ideal time to make them. Virtually overnight, life had become confined to the home. Work became nonexistent for millions of people who got laid off, or—for those who had the privilege of working remotely—it became the thing one did between anxious trips to the grocery store or homeschooling children. There weren’t many “experiences” to be had—no friends’ birthday parties, happy hours, or 7 p.m. movies. Relationships and domestic life became our prime concerns, so it’s only natural that the consequential decisions some of us have made in the last several months have had to do with those areas of our lives.
But life often evades neat explanations and anthropological analysis. Though Alioto herself got married during the pandemic, she says it was partly born from economic necessity and pragmatism: Like millions of Americans, she lost her job in 2020 and therefore her health insurance. Now she’s on her husband’s.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh a bunch of people got married as a consolation prize for not being able to go on vacation anymore,’” Alioto said. “These are complicated decisions.”
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