The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
It has been well documented that over the last few decades we have seen a substantial increase in the median age of marriage in the United States. In fact, we are currently at all-time historic highs in these trends. According to the Current Population Survey from the U.S. Census, the median age of marriage right now is nearly 29 years of age for men and 27 years of age for women. Given the trajectory of this trend over the last several years, we are quickly approaching a time in our culture where half of marriages will occur for individuals after the age of 30, quite different from what we have seen in previous generations.
It is generally assumed by many that this delay of marriage is a positive trend and that later marriage provides more time for maturation and preparation—especially in regards to economic or career readiness. For these reasons, delayed marriage is actively promoted by parents and others. However, some emerging evidence may challenge this assumption. Particularly when we consider patterns of family formation, family stability, and child well-being, there appear to be some significant tradeoffs associated with the delay of marriage. These trade-offs are significant enough, in fact, that the path many young adults are pursuing in an effort to be better prepared for lasting marriage and to have a successful family life is actually producing the opposite of what they intend.
Three Key Misunderstandings
Three key misunderstandings are leading to our societal miscalculation of the full implications of delayed marriage, particularly delayed marriage into the 30s. First, we tend to be interpreting this trend only through the experience of the college-educated. If we broaden out and look at the full social-economic spectrum, we start to see some very different patterns related to the delay of marriage. It is important to remember that those who are not college-educated make up the vast majority of our population. Unless we consider these less-educated segments of our society, we will never fully appreciate the consequences and impacts of delayed marriage.
The second misunderstanding, and perhaps the most important, is that the very term “delayed marriage” is an inappropriate name or designation for what is in fact happening. Our collective conversation about delayed marriage is missing the key point that what we are seeing is not “delayed marriage” as much as it is “re-sequenced marriage.” Yes, marriage is being delayed by many individuals; but sexual coupling and childbearing are not—at least not to the same degree. If marriage, sex, and childbearing were being delayed as a “whole package,” we would be seeing something very different. There is also a segment of society where we see a pattern of “marriage foregone”—not just delayed, but no longer a part of the life course.
The third misunderstanding is that we tend to fall into the belief that age equals maturation. During the teenage and childhood years, brain development and other biological processes of maturation are actively occurring. Thus, chronological and maturational age do tend to match up very well. But as people start to move into young adulthood, chronological age is no longer a guarantee of movement or progress in maturational age. The simple assumption that older is better, or that older means more prepared, actually starts to miss some of the most important factors that help people become ready for marriage and family life. We need to more fully develop a culture of marriage readiness that helps young people develop true “marital competence,” rather than arbitrarily selecting a chronological age and assuming that reaching that age makes one ready to be a spouse or parent.
Age of Marriage and Income Levels
Turning to some of the analyses my colleagues and I did for the Knot Yet Report, we can look at how age of marriage is related to income for men and women. We analyzed the American Community Survey (2008-2010) and divided the sample into three clusters or groups: (1) the less than high-school educated or the high-school dropout population, (2) the high-school graduate or community college population—what we sometimes refer to as the “Middle America” population, and (3) the college graduate and professional population (see Figure 1). We then divided those populations into age of marriage groups, including: (1) those who married under the age of 20, (2) those who married between 20 and 23, 3) those who married between 24 and 26, (4) those who married between 27 and 29, (5) those who married over the age of 30, and (6) those who never married. We compared those groups on their level of current personal incomes by the time they reached their mid-30s.
(Figure 1: Personal Income of 33-35 Year-Old Women, by Age at Marriage and Education, from The Knot Yet Report.)