It’s a cold, sleety Minnesota day, and I’m in a classroom with 25 undergraduate students, talking about marriage. This discussion is the culmination of a mini-unit in which (among other things) we examined sociological data showing worrisome marital trends in America.

We discussed how various social problems, particularly among the poor, might be ameliorated through a strengthening of marriage. Charles Murray’s portrayal of “Fishtown,” combined with the New York Times’ “Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do,’” painted vividly the challenges that a weak marriage culture creates for poor families. Now I put the question to the students: What might help? How can we better encourage people to get and stay married?

A young man raises his hand. “This unit was interesting, but the university should offer whole classes on marriage. A lot of people don’t realize how important it is, for their kids and just for having a happy life.”

Another hand. “They should talk about this in high school, too. It seems like we heard a lot of warnings about drugs and dropping out and safe sex. I don’t remember hearing anything about marriage.”

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A third student chimes in, “Parents should talk with their kids about it. Mine never did. I sort of wanted them to, but it was awkward to ask, you know?” A number of heads nodded in agreement.

The first time I heard students talk like this, I was amazed. I have rarely known undergraduates to be so self-aware. I would almost have thought that they were telling me what I wanted to hear, had not long experience taught me that students were thoroughly inept at discerning what I wanted to hear.

Now, after several semesters of discussing marriage with my introductory ethics classes, I’ve heard these concerns expressed enough times to conclude that, for all their righteous zeal concerning sexual freedom, undergraduates do actually know that they are confused about marriage.

This is interesting, particularly since the young people in question are not particularly religious or conservative. My students represent a fairly standard cross-section of middle-class American 20-year-olds. They can talk all day about the evils of global warming and homophobia, but the decline of marriage is, for most of them, a fairly new subject. Nevertheless, they are easily convinced that our society has a marriage problem, because they know that they have a marriage problem, which their teachers and parents have done little to help them resolve.

To me, this frank uncertainty about marriage makes a fitting centerpiece in the tragic tableau of today’s young Americans. They seem to be almost perfectly unsuited to the social and political climate of their time, like hothouse flowers whose cultivators failed to note that they were destined to be planted in an alpine tundra. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: young people want the right things (security, love, and a prosperous life), but they have very wrong ideas about how best to attain them.

Today’s undergraduates are not, for the most part, radicals and revolutionaries. They harbor conventional hopes of professional success and happy marriages. But while they believe that the first can reliably be secured through hard work and dedication, marriage seems in their minds to require a mysterious mixture of good fortune and good chemistry, perhaps combined with the social status that they hope to win through professional success.

Unfortunately, they have things exactly backwards. A good marriage is the sort of thing that almost anyone can aspire to, regardless of skills, education, or status. The most important ingredients for marital success are within any individual’s power to attain. Professional success, by contrast, does reflect hard work and commitment, but it also depends on complex external factors that no individual person can control. For today’s rising generation, those external factors are not looking promising.

The students of private universities are, for the most part, children of privilege, and they behave as such. David Brooks has written extensively on this, and my observations agree largely with his: today’s undergraduates are industrious, well-habituated rule followers who have been superbly socialized to conform to the expectations of their elders. They take it as axiomatic that they have obligations to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate through political action, which is the duty they pay for their ideological commitment to equality.

At the same time, they regard it as their birthright to inherit the prosperous and secure world that their parents mostly enjoyed. Even as they stand on the cusp of significant political and economic change, I find my students to be curiously uninterested in helping to reshape the future. For the most part, they are content with their conventional goals of upward mobility, material comfort, and marital success.

The first two will not come easily. Recent studies suggest that college graduates are struggling to find jobs and that those who do are likely to find themselves busing tables or stocking shelves. The mainstream press has been writing about this for some time now, but oddly, the reality does not seem to have set in for most of my students. They remain convinced that they are among America’s best and brightest, which is an odd assumption for a middling student at a university that US News classifies as “an A-Plus School for B Students.”

I got a particularly nice illustration of this complacency a few years ago, when the peak of the Occupy Wall Street frenzy happened to coincide with a mini-unit my class was doing on work and the ethics of labor. I attempted to use current events as a lead-in by asking the students for their views on the protests. What, in their view, had precipitated the outburst? Was the anger justified? I expected that this, if anything, would be a great example of a “youth issue.”

I was mistaken. My students knew almost nothing about Occupy Wall Street, and they showed little interest in learning more. I was amused to find myself making the sympathetic case for the OWS protesters, while my students comfortably asserted that graduates of “a good four-year school” like theirs were unlikely to find themselves in such an awkward situation. Clearly none of them had (like me) seen in these angry, disaffected twenty-somethings the specter of themselves a few years down the road.

Their confidence might seem inexplicable, given the hard data. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, young Americans under 25 are currently unemployed at almost twice the rate of older workers; more than 10 million are out of work. College graduates are not immune to this trend, as seen in a decline in wages (down 8.5% since 2000), benefits, and overall employment rates.

With storm clouds forming on their professional horizons, where do marriage and family fit into the average undergraduate’s plans? As my students’ comments reflect, they are far less confident on this point. Most of them do value marriage. A recent Pew survey suggests that 70% of millennials hope to marry someday, and in my discussions with students, I have yet to hear them claim that marriage should be jettisoned as an expression of trite, bourgeois values. Even those who don’t definitely wish to marry will readily agree that marriage is, in general, a good thing.

Yet they don’t know how to get there. Even as their path to professional success was being artificially and perhaps fraudulently over-programmed, the path to a happy married life was mostly left for them to discover on their own. They have some idea of the goods that they hope to attain through marriage: stability, emotional fulfillment, family. But they aren’t sure how this package of benefits should fit together—let alone how they should go about attaining it.

The wisdom they do have fits nicely with current statistical trends and with what is coming to be known as the “soul mate” or “capstone” model of marriage. According to this model, marriage should be put off until one is established, or on the cusp of becoming established. Very few of my students seem to expect or hope to be married during their college years or shortly afterwards, which may help to explain why newlyweds (particularly those with university degrees) have been getting steadily older.

According to the “capstone” model, proper time should be taken to develop a relationship before marriage is considered. Early marriage and brief courtships are condemned in the harshest terms by students, who regard intimacy and demonstrated personal compatibility as the best safeguards against marital unhappiness or divorce.

Much ink has been spilled over the connections among age, education, and marital success. By now it is an accepted fact that the capstone model has worked moderately well for the educated upper class, and far less well for poorer and less educated Americans. Americans across all demographics place more emphasis on the emotional and romantic aspects of marriage than their great-grandparents would have done.

Talking with the relatively privileged attendees of a four-year university has made me realize, however, that the rationale behind late marriage goes far beyond the romance. College students take comfort in laying out a path to marriage that connects with another area of life that they think they understand, namely, educational and professional ladder-climbing. Good spouses, they often suggest, will be found in higher-status professions and social circles, and they themselves will “qualify” for a good marriage if they achieve similar professional status.

Having devoted so much energy and attention to the education game, they naturally fold happy marriage into the spoils they already associate with professional accomplishment. The organic link between marriage and parenthood may be severely weakened, but marriage, prosperity, and professional success are coming to be seen as an “organic” package of a different kind.

As crass as this view may seem, there are actually some upsides. Young people see marriage as a prize worth working for and worth protecting once it has been attained. Statistical data would also suggest that they are not entirely wrong to think that marriage becomes easier when a couple is more mature and better established.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to worry. If marriage is a reward for professional establishment, this means that success in life comes in a kind of double-or-nothing package. If that is the case, one ramification will be that fewer good jobs will mean fewer good marriages. Even among the elite, this is not a promising model in an economic downturn. The unemployed young, in particular, will end up rootless, purposeless, and lacking the stability that marriage and commitment can provide.

There is no getting around the fact that this is a difficult time in which to come of age. As they move into adulthood, millennials will suffer more disappointment than their parents. They will have to work harder in exchange for less security, less comfort and less upward mobility than their parents enjoyed. At this point, it is probably beyond anyone’s power to change that sobering reality. But it may still be possible to help the rising generation by showing them that their basic paradigm for success in life is upside-down. They imagine that worldly success is readily attainable, and hope to be lucky in love. They must be brought to understand that committed love can be chosen and cultivated even in difficult circumstances, while worldly success depends much more heavily on the winds of fortune.

It is encouraging to find, at least, that many young people today are open to learning more about marriage. They may be relieved to hear that it is not, after all, such a mystery. Eons of wisdom can help us to make sense of what it is, and how it works, and how it can be made to work. Marriage has given structure and purpose to the lives of an incredibly diverse array of people, across millennia of human history. It can work for young Americans today. And the consolations of family life could help to compensate for the other disappointments and challenges that these over-optimistic youth are likely to encounter once they move beyond the classroom.

Millennials want to hear this, and they need to know. If their elders want to atone for the mistakes of yesteryear, now is the time to start talking about marriage.