This fellow note is an excerpt from a recent article in The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy and modified from a plenary address delivered at the World Congress on Families (WCF9), Salt Lake City, Utah, October 29, 2015.
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 at the point now where we are at all-time historic highs in these trends. According to the Current Population Survey from the U.S. Census, the current median age of marriage is nearly 29 years of age for men and 27 years of age for women (Knot Yet, p. 12).
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. In fact, delayed marriage is widely talked about in our broader society as a positive trend and actively promoted by parents and others. However, there is emerging evidence that challenges this assumption. Particularly when we consider patterns of family formation, family stability, and child well-being, there appear to be some significant trade-offs associated with the delay of marriage that we are experiencing in our culture. 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
Why is this happening? I believe there are three key misunderstandings that 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 in our society. When we consider demographic trends across the full social-economic spectrum, we start to see some very different patterns related to the delay of marriage in our society. It is important to remind ourselves as well that those who are not college-educated are the vast majority of people in our society. Unless we consider the less-educated segments of the population, we will never fully appreciate the consequences and impacts of delayed marriage in our society as a whole.
The second misunderstanding, and perhaps the most important, is that the very term “delayed marriage” is an inappropriate name or designation for what is happening in our society. I believe that our collective conversation about delayed marriage is missing the key point in 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 is 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 than we are experiencing now. However, when only marriage is being delayed, but sex and children are not, that is a very different scenario. We also see a segment of society in which there is a pattern of “marriage foregone,” where it is not just delayed, but it is now no longer a part of the life course. The third misunderstanding that we have in our culture is that we tend to fall into the belief that age equals maturation.
While we are in our 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 during these stages of life. But as we start to move into young adulthood, chronological age is no longer a guarantee of movement or progress in maturational age. Simply assuming that older is better, or that older means more prepared, means that we start 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” (Carroll et al., 2006), rather than arbitrarily selecting a chronological age and assuming that reaching that age makes someone ready to be a spouse or parent.
Read the full article here.
Carroll, J. S., Badger, S., & Yang, C. (2006). The Ability to Negotiate or the Ability to Love?: Evaluating the Developmental Domains of Marital Competence. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1001-1032.
Hymowitz, K., Carroll, J. S., Wilcox, W. B., & Kaye, K. (2013). Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America. A commissioned report sponsored by the National Campaign to Teen and Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy, the RELATE Institute, and the National Marriage Project. "http://www.twentysomethingmarriage.org"