Ross Douthat describes what’s been happening to marriage lately (pun intended):
…[L]ate marriage is entangled with the story of rising out-of-wedlock births, thanks to what the authors [of this report] call “the great crossover” — the fact that the age of first marriage, which was once about a year earlier than the average age at which the first child was born, now lags the average age of first birth by about a year. Hence the report’s most attention-grabbing statistic: That 48 percent of overall first births, and 58 percent of first births to what the report calls “Middle Americans” — women with a high school diploma and maybe some college, but no 4-year degree — now take place outside of marriage, a trend whose negative consequences for children probably don’t need to be rehearsed here.
Douthat calls the statistic “attention-grabbing,” but it’s hardly surprising, especially considering the way western Europe (and particularly Scandinavia) has been going. In Scandinavia, not only are the majority of children born out of wedlock, but there seems to be no stigma at all when it happens. Marriage itself has become a sort of after-the-fact ceremony that certifies that the already-ongoing experiment in living together and having a family has become something that particular couple wants to declare permanent (or at least that they intend it to be permanent—or perhaps that they just want to have a big party).
Douthat points out that the study describes a situation in which delayed marriage works differently in regard to men and women:
Upper-class women reap a large wage premium from delaying marriage — a college-educated woman who marries in her 30s earns over $15,000 more annually than a woman who marries in her early 20s, and when you look at household income, the premium for marrying later rises to more than $20,000. Women without 4-year degrees also enjoy a wage premium when they delay marriage, albeit a smaller one (and a very small one when you look at household income). Men, meanwhile, reap a wage premium from marrying earlier, so late marriage tends to hurt their economic prospects: For men without a 4-year degree, the earlier the marriage, the higher their income, and even college-educated men earn more if they marry in their 20s than in their 30s.
Note that I wrote “the study describes a situation in which delayed marriage works differently” rather than “the study indicates delayed marriage causes.” Correlation alone is not causation, although it is often erroneously assumed to be. In the case of the above statistics, it’s not at all clear whether late marriage causes the financial differences or whether the financial differences reflect other differences that end up causing the late marriage (for example, personal instability), but my guess is that it’s a bit of both.
Societal changes such as feminism, the so-called sexual revolution, the almost-nonexistent stigma against cohabitation or bastardy, tough economic times, the prevalence of divorce, the welfare state, and probably fifty others I haven’t named have all combined to cause this state of affairs (double pun intended). And has the sum total of human happiness increased as a result? I don’t see that it has.
Here’s a set of curious charts that lists the age of first marriage around the world for both men and women. If you peruse them, you might be surprised (as I was) to see that the ages are fairly uniformly later than one might think, even in many less-developed countries. What’s up with Libya (approximately 32 and 29), for example? I’d guess it might have to do with lack of economic opportunities and/or assistance (from family and/or government) for young people (although that doesn’t seem to create the same barriers in Egypt, where both sexes get married at around 24).
Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway just might have the highest age of all at first marriage (35/32; 34/32; 35/32; 33/31). No surprise there; we already knew that. It’s interesting, however, that a highly developed country such as Israel clocks in at around 25 for both sexes; does the average come down because of the early age of marriage among the Orthodox, who represent about 25% of the population there (about 10% are ultra-Orthodox, the strictest group)?
These statistics have undergone an enormous change in my lifetime. I was married for the first time at 26, but among my friends that made me an outlier. Almost everyone I knew was married before me, actually long before me. In my case I was following a family tradition; my parents had gotten married at almost the same age as my husband and I, but they had been outliers too. My friends who were married in their late teens and very early twenties (sometimes before getting out of college, often immediately after) are not only all still married, but seem to have all pursued various jobs and careers with success and satisfaction, and have had families and raised (for the most part) children who are functioning very well as adults today. That’s mere anecdote, of course, rather than statistics. But it shows the extremity of the changes in a small amount of time.