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Capstones vs. Cornerstones: Is Marrying Late Always Better?

Report: 2022 State of Our Unions


Read the full report here.

Most American adults aspire to be married. But for most people marriage has become what distinguished family sociologist Andrew Cherlin called a “capstone achievement” rather than a cornerstone of young adult life.

The median age at first marriage has increased dramatically over the past 50 years in the United States, from 23 in 1970 to about 30 in 2021 for men, and from 21 in 1970 to 28 in 2021 for women, and there is no evidence that this upward trend is leveling off. Many view this trend as a positive development because a capstone model of marriage emphasizes delaying marriage while young adults explore their identities, “get themselves together,” fully experience single life, pursue education and careers, and establish themselves financially.

A capstone approach may be a sensible evolution of the way we should relate romantically and form families to fit expectations of a new era. Indeed, a recent national survey of Millennials (ages 18-33) found the vast majority of respondents expressing that marrying later means that both people will be more mature, more likely to have achieved important personal goals, and more likely to have personal finances in order. But a deeper dive into postponing marriage also raises significant concerns. Do later marriages consistently provide better prospects for marital success than earlier marriages? As often as we hear about the advantages of capstone marriage, there has been little empirical investigation of those purported advantages.

In this essay, we report our empirical investigation of potential differences between early-marrieds (ages 20-24), who are more aligned with a cornerstone marriage model, and later-marrieds (25+), who are more aligned with a capstone model, on a wide range of marital outcomes. To do so, we employ three recent datasets with large, nationally representative samples. Overall, our analyses demonstrate no empirical reasons to favor capstone marriage over cornerstone marriage. It is important to note that our definition of cornerstone marriage is for those who married in their early 20s (not in their teens).

The “State of Our Unions: 2022” monitors the current health of marriage and family life in America. It is a joint publication of the National Marriage Project of the University of Virginia, the Wheatley Institute, and the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Editor: W. Bradford Wilcox

Associate Editors: Alan J. Hawkins, Jason S. Carroll, Anne Marie Wright Jones, and Spencer L. James

Founding Co-Editors: David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead