By Mark Regnerus
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Spring is here, that glorious season when young men's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of love, as the poet Tennyson once suggested. "Lightly" is right.
The average age of American men marrying for the first time is now 28. That's up five full years since 1970 and the oldest average since the Census Bureau started keeping track. If men weren't pulling women along with them on this upward swing, I wouldn't be complaining. But women are now taking that first plunge into matrimony at an older age as well. The age gap between spouses is narrowing: Marrying men and women were separated by an average of more than four years in 1890 and about 2.5 years in 1960. Now that figure stands at less than two years. I used to think that only young men -- and a minority at that -- lamented marriage as the death of youth, freedom and their ability to do as they pleased. Now this idea is attracting women, too.
In my research on young adults' romantic relationships, many women report feeling peer pressure to avoid giving serious thought to marriage until they're at least in their late 20s. If you're seeking a mate in college, you're considered a pariah, someone after her "MRS degree." Actively considering marriage when you're 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic. Those who do fear to admit it -- it's that scandalous.
How did we get here? The fault lies less with indecisive young people than it does with us, their parents. Our own ideas about marriage changed as we climbed toward career success. Many of us got our MBAs, JDs, MDs and PhDs. Now we advise our children to complete their education before even contemplating marriage, to launch their careers and become financially independent. We caution that depending on another person is weak and fragile. We don't want them to rush into a relationship. We won't help you with college tuition anymore, we threaten. Don't repeat our mistakes, we warn.
Sara, a 19-year-old college student from Dallas, equated thinking about marrying her boyfriend with staging a rebellion. Her parents "want my full attention on grades and school because they want me to get a good job," she told me. Understandable. But our children now sense that marrying young may be not simply foolish but also wrong and socially harmful. And yet today, as ever, marriage wisely entered into remains good for the economy and the community, good for one's personal well-being, good for wealth creation and, yes, good for the environment, too. We are sending mixed messages.
This is not just an economic problem. It's also a biological and emotional one. I realize that it's not cool to say that, but my job is to map trends, not to affirm them. Marriage will be there for men when they're ready. And most do get there. Eventually. But according to social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, women's "market value" declines steadily as they age, while men's tends to rise in step with their growing resources (that is, money and maturation). Countless studies -- and endless anecdotes -- reinforce their conclusion. Meanwhile, women's fertility is more or less fixed, yet they largely suppress it during their 20s -- their most fertile years -- only to have to beg, pray, borrow and pay to reclaim it in their 30s and 40s. Although male fertility lives on, it doesn't hold out forever, either: Studies emerging from Europe and Australia note that a couple's chances of conceiving fall off notably when men pass the age of 40, and that several developmental disorders are slightly more common in children of older fathers.
Of course, there's at least one good statistical reason to urge people to wait on the wedding. Getting married at a young age remains the No. 1 predictor of divorce. So why on earth would I want to promote such a disastrous idea? For three good reasons:
First, what is considered "early marriage" by social scientists is commonly misunderstood by the public. The best evaluations of early marriage -- conducted by researchers at the University of Texas and Penn State University -- note that the age-divorce link is most prominent among teenagers (those who marry before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume.
Second, good social science pays attention to gender differences. Most young women are mature enough to handle marriage. According to data from the government's National Survey of Family Growth, women who marry at 18 have a better shot at making a marriage work than men who marry at 21. There is wisdom in having an age gap between spouses. For women, age is (unfortunately) a debit, decreasing fertility. For men, age can be a credit, increasing their access to resources and improving their maturity, thus making them more attractive to women. We may all dislike this scenario, but we can't will it away.
Third, the age at which a person marries never actually causes a divorce. Rather, a young age at marriage can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges -- the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting. Unfortunately, well-educated people resist this, convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.
Too bad real life isn't like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you're fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. "Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth," added Tennyson to his lines about springtime and love.
I realize that marrying early means that you engage in a shorter search. In the age of online dating personality algorithms and matches, Americans have become well acquainted with the cultural (and commercial) notion that melding marriage with science will somehow assure a good fit. But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I've met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can't.
Today, there's an even more compelling argument against delayed marriage: the economic benefits of pooling resources. My wife and I married at 22 with nothing to our name but a pair of degrees and some dreams. We enjoy recounting those days of austerity, and we're still fiscal conservatives because of it, better poised to weather the current crisis than many, because marriage is an unbelievably efficient arrangement and the best wealth-creating institution there is. Married people earn more, save more and build more wealth compared with people who are single or cohabiting. (Say what you will about the benefits of cohabitation, it's a categorically less stable arrangement, far more prone to division than marriage.) We can combine incomes while reducing expenses such as food, child care, electricity, gas and water usage. Marriage may be bourgeois, but it's also the greenest of all social structures. Michigan State ecologists estimate that the extra households created by divorce cost the nation 73 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and more than 600 billion gallons of water in a year. That's a mighty big carbon footprint created in the name of solitude. Marriage may not make you rich -- that's not its purpose -- but a biblical proverb reveals this nifty side effect: "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work."
So while many young Americans mark their days in the usual ways -- by hitting the clubs, incessantly checking Facebook, Twittering their latest love interest and obsessing about their poor job prospects or how to get into graduate school -- my applause goes out to those among them who've figured out that the proverb was right. One of those is Jennifer, a 23-year-old former student of mine. She's getting married this fall. It wasn't religion that made her do it. It wasn't fear of being alone. It was simply affection. She met Jake while still in college and decided that there was no point in barhopping through her 20s. Her friends balked. She stood firm. Now they're bridesmaids.
Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers."