Updated: Sep 19, 2019
The forging of new and old marriage traditions in the 21st Century.
Our needs and values change over time – of course they do. Life advances, humans adapt, businesses respond and keep up. Or do they? Is the wedding industry really that up to date? Human values and attitudes toward relationships are changing, and the number of marriages is plummeting. As we live for longer, and our tradition loving teenagers come of age, what does this mean for the wedding planners, florists, hotel venues and dressmakers who service our knot tying needs?
*This article was originally published in Pej Gruppen's Tid & Tendenser, 2017
As a culture, we have fewer opportunities to celebrate in a formal way. There are no formal balls and dances anymore, nor are there dinners or seasonal social events. Normcore took over and now we dress for comfort. We aren’t used to hosting events or planning parties, ergo we drink prosecco on our sofa on a Wednesday and embrace a wedding with a lot of enthusiasm. It doesn’t even have to be our own wedding - anyone’s will do, as it’s our moment to throw all our merrymaking deprivation into one event and go wild.
How much longer are we going to be encouraging people to spend their life’s savings on a fairy light bedecked venue and Vera Wang?
Marriage rates tumbling
Since 1965, the rate of marriage in Europe has declined by close to 50%. Even as the eligibility criteria for marriage widens, the number of weddings has fallen to historical lows in France and Spain and has tumbled in countries such as Italy, Ireland, Poland and Portugal. People have also fallen out of love with marriage in countries as varied as Greece, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands and the UK.
Throughout the entire world, people are marrying later, according to UN World marriage data. In the UK it now sits in the 30’s for both men and women. Those marrying after being widowed or divorced are also doing so at a later age.
A 2010 Pew Research Centre study found that to find love is important to most Americans, and to Brits, but to be married is not. It’s more important to be a good parent, but you don’t need to be married to do that.
They also found that the American public believes that married people have an easier time when it comes to rearing children, but in all other areas of life i.e. happiness, health and financial security, there is little difference between being married and not. When it comes to having a successful career, however, singledom wins hands down.
‘Peak’ wedding = peak visual
So is there change afoot? Facing facts, the majority of countries in the western world are at ‘peak wedding’. We pay money to go to expos to be persuaded to hire photo-booths, order the latest rainbow meringues and pay deposits for the ultimate in narcissism, a monogrammed logo to be plastered over your entire wedding. To anyone looking from the outside in, it is verging on insanity.
Our recently very visual world encourages competition amongst everyone: you’re no-one unless you’re famous, and everyone is seeking their opportunity in the spotlight. Despite a simmering counter-trend towards anonymity, weddings are a quest for visual perfection, resulting in highly stylised marriages that can be shown off to all – a trend that wedding experts believe will continue for as long as Instagram and Pinterest have a grip of us.
Social media and comparison anxiety
Unsurprisingly, social media is more influential upon wedding related decision making than wedding fairs, and people are using blogs for research more than they are using wedding sites, according to research by US based wedding market research company, Splendid.
However, it is the channel through which many couples live out the journey of their marriage, from celebration of engagement through to shortlisting supplier choice, seeking inspiration for colour schemes and ultimately capturing the wedding itself. Three in five brides surveyed by The Knot.com this year reported announcing their engagement on social media within the first 24 hours of saying “yes”, and 66% of couples use a social media #hashtag to help document their day, with 82% creating their it within the first six months of their engagement.
Despite its formidable uses, social media is a digital minefield for the modern marriage: a quicksand of comparison that grips you tighter the more you struggle against it.
‘A lot of brides feel under pressure to get it just right, but not from the guests or family: from themselves’, says wedding planner Dita Rosted; ‘they’ll have a mood-board of images from social media, and if their wedding doesn’t look the same, they feel like they’ve failed. It’s sad.’
Memories only exist in a photo-frame
Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, you had a friend take a few snaps outside the ceremony, and that was that. In a highly visualised society (and there is no sign of this dwindling), we choose a venue that offers the most aesthetically pleasing setting, so that our visual mementoes of this half day event will be the best they can possibly be – because we are told, the photos are the ‘only thing you have left’ after the big day is over. What about the memories? The ones in your head? What about the tastes, sounds, laughs, tears, hugs, dancefloor escapades? Well of course they are important too… so you hire a videographer.
Global wedding expert Sarah Haywood believes ‘our celebrity culture means that you’re no-one if you’re not famous for 15 minutes, and being the star of a blog or magazine article becomes it’s the ultimate aim for many brides’.
‘Everyone wants their wedding to be featured on wedding blogs’, confides Rosted. ‘Choosing some venues will almost guarantee you a feature, and suppliers will give you a discount as they know it’ll get selected.’
In reality, when you cut through the paper hearts, every wedding is just a variation on a norm. There is a requirement to sign a piece of paper and make a formal declaration of commitment, but is anything beyond that just frills and frippery in an attempt to stand out and get those 15 minutes? When the blogs, magazines and Instagram reminds us that other people added cuter, different frills, behavioural economics rules kick in and tell us ‘I should do that too… it’s what everyone is doing’.
Everyone wants their wedding to be a little different – it’s human nature. But as Rosted points out, ‘it takes a lot of work to think outside the box – it doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so sometimes it’s easiest just to do what everyone else does’.
Taking comfort in tradition
It might surprise some that the 2013 European Social values survey concludes that following traditions and rules is increasingly important to our younger generations, and exhibiting ‘proper behaviour’ is important to anyone not quite yet in their 40’s. Fewer people are in need of admiration from others, but the idea of ‘seeking respect’ has become more important in general since 2011.
So does that mean we’re headed back along a route of tradition? To some extent. In times of social and political instability, and now is one of those times for many countries, anything that has roots, meaning and tradition is held tightly and nursed.
‘Traditions were adhered to until about 10 years ago, when people began to rebuff the very idea of a white dress and a wedding in a religious institution. If your life isn’t traditional, why should your wedding be?’ says international wedding planner Jessie Thomson; ‘As we became more hedonistic, it became a day that reflected you, but now, more couples are craving familiarity, choosing the church and the white dress and the big sit down dinner.’
Tradition doesn’t equate to religious institution for everyone, though: ‘creative, younger couples in their twenties and thirties keep the fun traditions that have relevance, and do away with the ones they don’t understand’, says Dita Rosted; ‘Or they mix them in with traditions they like from other cultures’.
The Millennial problem
So whilst tradition might be important to the under 25’s, being independent, or having the freedom to make your own decisions is also seen by them as a basic right.
People in their early twenties are driven, independent, cash poor and surprisingly well behaved. They don’t drink that much, and they like their parents. They’ve seen people older than them struggle with finances and corporate career stability; they don’t trust institutions and would generally prefer to do something for the love of it, rather than for the money.
Under 24’s expect significant life changes to occur to them; far more than other age groups. They know that life is going to be a gym (quoting Sheryl Sandberg), more than a ladder.
All this adds up to a question mark over the value of an actual marriage, a question mark over the idea of ‘one person forever’. ‘I’d like to say I believe in forever, but I also think my idea of the perfect person will change in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.’ says Freya, 21, a lifestyle blogger in London. ‘I think people my age who have grown up around divorce and second marriages don’t associate weddings as being worth the money’.
We have so much choice our lives, that to make a solid commitment to one person, seemingly forever, is a bold statement to make, and one that requires time to experiment and ponder.
Could corporate clauses be the answer to a successful relationship? Perhaps annual performance reviews should be put in place, and we should treat out marriages and relationships like a work project?
Millennials in the USA, when asked by USA Network, favoured an approach to marriage that bordered on a version of website beta testing: 43% favoured a marriage that could either be dissolved or formalised after two years, no paperwork required. Over a third said they’d be open to trying what researchers dubbed the “real estate” approach, where marriage licenses are granted on a 5, 7, 10 or 30 year basis, after which the terms must be renegotiated. And 21% said they’d give the “presidential” method a try, whereby marriage vows last for four years but after eight you can elect to choose a new partner. For a generation that have grown up with endless choice and honed an excellent baloney sensor, they are rightly cynical. It is no wonder at all that these models make sense to them.
What about those who have done their experiments and chosen to marry? ‘The Millennial generation have a much higher expectation of service and they will pay for it’, says Sarah Haywood. They value the service just as much as product, so the person doing the selling is crucial: it’s about much more than the flowers or glassware, because a wedding is so personal’.
Haywood believes that Millennials will pay for the things they want, and they will even get into debt for it. ‘A wedding, or any kind of celebration for more than a few people is expensive, and it’s a big proportion of your income, no matter how much money you do or don’t have.’
Slicing the wedding budget
This tallies with research from Splendid, which found 53% of UK couples said the personality of their wedding suppliers was ‘very important’. Absolutely no-one said it didn’t matter. Half of couples said speediness of email response was a ‘very important’ deciding factor when booking a supplier, and a further 42% said ‘it matters’. They take their time to make a decision, but when they make it, they expect full and fast attention from the person getting their money.
Contrary to popular belief, the average cost of a wedding has decreased in the past few years, according to UK wedding site Confetti. Over a fifth of couples budgeted £10,000-15,000, and over a third budgeted between £5,000 – £7,500. The median cost of a European wedding is €5,000. Confetti believe that the recession has encouraged the rise of DIY weddings, with people making their own decorations and being savvy about how they send invitations.
But surely, that ‘vintage’ feel is dying a death? Slowly, yes. In times of uncertainty, we have always clung tightly to nostalgia, but if you take a glance at the Spring fashion collections, you’ll see bold colours, playful details and experimental silhouettes. People aren’t hunkering down and staying indoors anymore – they’ve had enough. Blowing raspberries to Brexit and ISIS: the people are getting on with life. It’s only a matter of time before a bolder, cleaner and less cling-to-the-past-because-we’re-afraid-of-failure attitude permeates into the wedding industry.
“I think it’s wishful thinking, that if we do it on the right day, in exactly the right way, we will set off in the right way and have the right marriage. And we’re terrified of making mistakes, so we guard against that with superstitions”, said marital expert Andrew Marshall in UK newspaper The Independent earlier this year. He suggests that these superstitions are exhibited on the wedding day, where couples will sink money into achieving manifestations of ‘perfection’, because they fear that if they don’t, then they are doomed.
Couples are perhaps getting a tighter grip of reality. Perfection is not about a day: it’s about a home. 60% of people in Europe would rather spend their money on a house than a wedding, according to a survey by ING. The figure is even higher in the struggling economies of Spain (70%) Italy (68%) and the U.K. (67%), where home buying is the typical mode of investment, but where house prices are sky high.
As people in their early twenties are generally struggling for cash, they will be relying on their parents, who since now know they are going to live longer, are increasingly keeping their money for themselves. Currently, around half of couples in the US, UK and Europe pay for their own weddings, and half get significant help from the bank of Mum and Dad. So what happens as the piggy banks run dry? Do couples either delay marriage; do it in a meaningful, but more economical way; or do they just borrow and spend wildly? There will always be a number who do the latter. As it becomes increasingly vulgar to make it obvious how you’ve spent your money, the first two options are more likely to become the norm.
Make it Meaningful
Looking at the types of ceremony that people are opting for demonstrates that more and more, people are trying to make the important part: the ceremony, truly personal and meaningful. In the UK, couples are choosing ‘approved venues’ more than registry offices, and as more unusual venues are approved, it becomes much easier to pledge your commitment to one another in a place that really means something to you as a couple.
And that place is becoming much less likely to be a place of worship. By 2050, Christianity is set to decline further in the UK - and in Europe, according to a Pew Research Centre study. It’s disingenuous to pretend to be something that fewer of us are these days, so UK church wedding figures are sliding.
But are these meaningful choices for the couple, or a peacock show for the guests? Humbleness and modesty have increased in importance, according to the European Social values study, supporting the argument that people are more likely to be focusing on what is important – and that is different for everyone, especially in diversity embracing countries such as the UK.
Wedding planners tell me that the future is about the experience… about the tiny details that no-one notices except the happy couple. Screen printed bouquet ribbon and a bar named after your cat… a rose flavoured cake with a whole pistachio nut hidden inside it because you met in India… it’s beautifully subtle and tres romantique… but who can afford it? In reality, only the top end of spenders.
‘Yes, that sort of thing does cost money’, says Jessie Thomson, ‘but most importantly it’s about being raw and emotive… playing to all the senses and making it a really memorable experience for all involved. But what if you don’t have the depth of pocket? What if, like our cash poor Millennials, you’re on a budget? ‘Then you think about your priorities, you make a budget, and you stick to it’.
Easier said than done. Especially when every blog and magazine is showering you with ideas and options and showing you someone who did it bigger/better/more colour-co-ordinated. That very modern malaise; FOMO, kicks in and tells our poor couples that they need to compete. But is that now so commonplace that it’s tacky?
We are at peak personalisation, not just peak wedding. Is it truly ‘personal’ when all and sundry can have the same ‘bespoke’ favours from Etsy, just with their initials, instead of yours?
Out of control
‘Style should never be confused with money’, says Peta Hunt, Editor at Large of You & Your Wedding magazine. She references American writer Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
‘Of course it’s easy to say all that, but it’s very hard telling people how to spend their money, especially when they have a dream’ says Hunt. ‘I do think though, that if you are old enough to get married, then you are old enough to decide what you want and how much you can afford.’
Maybe so, but there is a need for greater education around the economics of relationships, domesticity and independence. Why does nobody teach this in schools?
Spend less to stay married
Of course, if you want to have a party, of any variety, it’s going to cost you money. But it’s unsurprising that there is a clear correlation between less-expensive engagement rings and lower divorce rates. Two economics professors at Emory University in the USA also found that spending less on a wedding and all its elements is also linked to a lower rate of divorce. It’s obvious, really: in theory the less you spend, the more likely it is that you are doing it for the right reasons.
Interestingly, they also discovered that the more people you have at your wedding, the more likely you are to stay married. That’s either down to the wide network of supportive friends and family, or the sheer embarrassment of announcing to the 150 people who turned up for your big day that you’ve reached the end of the line.
Interestingly, while the divorce rate across Europe has increased, in the UK, it has been slowing for some time, after a peak that ran from the late 80’s, through the 90’s and into the early noughties. The number of divorces amongst younger couples has slowed, likely due to the children of those who divorced in the 90’s deciding that they didn’t want to experience what they saw their parents go through.
Spoiling yourself at 60
What about the older generation? Divorce amongst over 55’s and especially over 60’s is on the rise, as they live longer and realise that they might have to spend the next 30 years with someone they grew out of long ago. In 2013, nearly 131,000 couples divorced, which was the lowest figure for 40 years.
A UK study from Nationwide Mortgages, supported by ONS data found that among the older generation of over-50s, divorce rates have increased by 11% in a decade, and are continuing to rise.
Referencing the European social survey again, over 55’s are the only age group with an increased desire to spoil themselves. So we can assume they aren’t going to be modest about second, or third marriages. Neither are they looking to eschew convention: along with under 24’s, following traditions and rules is increasingly important to them, too.
‘Older generations and second or third timers tend to spend less on their dress and focus more on the celebration and the people they want to be there, supporting them’, says Peta Hunt.
Jessie Thomson agrees, ‘they are older and wiser and want to make it better than the first time around. The weddings are normally smaller, but more meaningful. They know what they are doing.’
The global pick ‘n’ mix
The UK is genetically wired to break with tradition and do things a little differently, but different countries move at different paces. ‘Denmark is about 10 years behind the UK’, says London based Dane Dita Rosted. ‘Culturally it’s not yet entirely acceptable to add too many elements that might make your day different, especially outside Copenhagen’. Does she expect that to change? ‘I hope so, but it will take time’.
Jessie Thomson finds that ‘Brits wants to be more European in their celebrations’, perhaps because we’ve forgotten our rituals? ‘Maybe, but the Americans and Asians wants to be quintessentially British when they marry in the UK.’ So we’re all borrowing from each other, which adds to the sweet shop of options. A veritable matrimonial pick ‘n’ mix: anything goes, and you can greedily keep filling your bag until you’re out of coins.
When the confetti settles…
So what does the future hold? Endless choice. With growth in celebrations of cultural fusion as people borrow and embrace those rituals and conventions that resonate with their beliefs.
As we see more new partnerships formed between older couples, they are expected to grasp the opportunity to do things differently from their first time around. Free of parental restrictions, they are celebrating the union and the happiness, and embracing the choices available. More destination weddings and more emphasis on the time spent enjoying the ceremony with people who really matter.
People in their early twenties are used to having a plethora of choice, meaning that they too can create the wedding they want, but given their predilection towards good behaviour and straight laced attitudes, it’s unlikely that they will be going too off-piste. They will have a social media-bred demand for beauty, but the tumultuous world they have grown up in only makes it more likely that they will seek stability wherever they can get it. Twenty year olds today are well behaved and sensible – at least by comparison to previous generations – and religious or cultural arrangements aside, marriage is a pure act, and in the eyes of Millennials, that is not something to be meddled with.
Peta Hunt pointed out the ‘goodbye youth!’ belief that so many people have: the flashing neon sign that seems to hang over a wedding like an ironic reaper, waiting to collect you on your way down the aisle, forcing you to ‘settle down’, stop living, make babies and move up the property ladder. She hopes it will fade with time, as she feels it puts unnecessary pressure on couples in their twenties and thirties.
I fear that will take some time. People crave stability and security: the European Social values survey concludes that we seek a secure, low risk life, and along with equality, democracy and loyalty, these are the social values that people cherish the most. It’s a widely ingrained social norm that marriage opens the door to those comforts, and therefore one for which almost everyone is cutting a key.
But, as more people break the rules of the reaper’s neon sign, and live life by different, less ‘traditional’ rules; becoming entrepreneurs; moving abroad and taking influence from Sweden’s ‘latte papas’, perhaps the pressure to perform on your wedding day will dissipate. We may however, have to wait some time – at least until today’s teenagers are in meaningful relationships.
‘People need to know that if they want to get married, it is possible to do so in a way that’s important to them. There are no limitations’. Once again, I am told it’s about budget and priorities: ‘no one makes these rules up’, says Hunt. ‘It’s up to you what you spend your money on’. And once again, we need educating.
So what next?
There are fewer marriages, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have things to celebrate. Commitment ceremonies, birthdays and coming of age celebrations are seeing ever increasing focus and attention
Marriage is taken much more seriously, especially by younger couples, so when they do it, it must have real personal meaning.
The meaning is increasingly for them: obviously personalised wedding paraphernalia is hitting its peak, and appealing to all the senses through personal references is desired by the couple
Celebrations will continue to be visually stimulating: social media bred competition means increased expectations of beauty
Experience is crucial: memorable food, entertainment and service will take even greater priority over the clothes and accessories, especially amongst older couples
Smaller, more ‘special’ weddings are still in growth: this can sometimes mean more money on a few lucky people
Professionalism needs to ramp up: vendor service is equally, if not more important than the product touted
As couples delay marriage, they are more likely to be in a better financial position, and happier to pay for the services (i.e. planning, currently considered a luxury) that will help make the planning stress-free.
Older generations have money, enthusiasm and new horizons. But not enough people serving them.
Younger age groups see tradition as important, but the traditions they hold dear are likely to be a cultural medley.
This article was originally published in Pej Gruppen's 'Tid & Tendenser', 2017