AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been exploring All Things Millennial in our series "New Boom." Today marriage trends - less than 50 percent of black millennials - born in 1980 - will be married by the time they're 40. Compare that to white millennials, about 80 percent will end up hitched. From our Code's Switch team, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji looked into this difference starting with a couple defying the trend.
LESLIE MITCHELL: Hi, I'm Leslie Mitchell.
CLARENCE MITCHELL: I'm Clarence Mitchell.
L. MITCHELL: And we are married.
C. MITCHELL: Yes. (Laughter).
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Leslie and Clarence Mitchell are black and early millennials - that means they're born between 1980 and 85.
C. MITCHELL: We're like the last generation that grew up with the Dewey Decimal system, right? But then, we also had the Internet.
MERAJI: Clarence and Leslie are a lot like married millennials of other races. They're solidly middle-class - grew up that way - have college degrees and married in their early thirties.
C. MITCHELL: It's funny - the advice that my mom gave growing up was don't get married until you're 30. (Laughter).
L. MITCHELL: Mine too.
C. MITCHELL: Right?
L. MITCHELL: Yeah. My mom said the same thing.
C. MITCHELL: And the reason was that you don't who you are until you're 30.
MERAJI: That gave them the time they needed to find just the right person, and Clarence had some very specific ideas of what he wanted in a wife.
L. MITCHELL: He showed me the list when we were dating.
C. MITCHELL: I wasn't playing games. So education - that was one of the things on my list - at least be at the same level of education or intellectually at the same level.
L. MITCHELL: I never was one of those people that wrote out a list. (Laughter) But I knew when I met him, like, if I had a list, he would be the fulfillment of my list.
RALPH RICHARD BANKS: One - does he hit you? Is he violent? Two - does he have a job? Three - does he drink?
MERAJI: Ralph Richard Banks, the author of "Is Marriage For White People: How The African-American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone," repeats the list of questions his dad gave his sisters back in the day. He says it illustrates how much the expectations of a good marriage partner have risen over the years.
BANKS: The cultural change with marriage has been so sweeping that everyone wants someone who they will regard as a soul mate, if you will. The challenge is that it's very difficult to realize that ideal if you're not affluent and well-educated.
MERAJI: Banks says the story behind the marriage gap has less to do with the Leslies and Clarences of the world and more to do with the changing cultural expectations of marriage coupled with growing socioeconomic inequality between black and white Americans. Latavia Moore is a single millennial in her late 20s.
LATAVIA MOORE: I'm an '80s baby - '90s raised me.
MERAJI: Moore was raised in a struggling single-parent home. She's on her own now but works seven days a week at two different jobs and is about to re-enroll in community college. She's been going on and off since graduating from high school.
MOORE: As a little girl, I never wanted to get married before 30. I always said it was going to be after 30 or at 30, but I always thought about my dream wedding. I still think about it. I want it to be epic.
MERAJI: But Moore's dream of an epic wedding and her current reality are at odds right now.
MOORE: Working two jobs - I mean I have no life. I can't do anything. If I am off, then I'm usually asleep. So it's just sleep and work - no social life. Even the relationships I try to get in now - it's just hard because I don't have any spare time. And when someone does come over to my house, I mean I don't want you to be over there for too long because I want to go to sleep. I'm tired. (Laughter).
MERAJI: And if Moore is only interested in marrying a black man, that makes getting hitched even harder says author Ralph Richard Banks.
BANKS: Black men are not doing well on the whole academically and educationally. That has implications for employment prospects. And then of course we have unprecedented numbers of black men who are incarcerated. These are not characteristics that are conducive to good relationships. And that leaves a lot of black women saying well, you know, if the option is to have that sort of relationship, maybe I'll just remain single.
MERAJI: Banks adds the millennial generation is just the latest to experience the black marriage gap. It's been an issue since the '70s, and there's debate over why. Some blame the loss of well-paid blue-collar work. Others point to social welfare programs that discouraged marriage. But Banks says the gap could be addressed by improving schools and providing better access to good-paying jobs. If not, he says, you'll see the chasm grow wider into the next generation.
Leslie Mitchell, the married millennial we heard from earlier, says she wants to encourage other African-Americans to look past the trends and the grim numbers.
L. MITCHELL: Despite what society or statistics tell you, there is someone for everyone.
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.