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Rebuttal: Real Wedding Bell Woes

By Andrew Cherlin
Monday, April 27, 2009 3:20 PM

Mark Regnerus, writing for The Post's Outlook section, laments today's older ages at marriage -- but curiously puts the burden primarily on women. He is distressed that wives in first marriages are only two years younger, on average, than their husbands, compared with four years younger in 1890. He urges women to marry earlier. But there is a good reason why the age gap between wives and husbands is narrowing: It's a relic of the pre-industrial era. In our urban, postindustrial world, the gap no longer makes sense. As more young adults realize that, they are marrying spouses closer to their own ages.

Let's start with 1890 -- the first year the Census started keeping these numbers, and the year Regnerus uses as a comparison with the more recent stats. Back then, when a large number of people were farmers (and even farther back in time when most were hunter-gatherers), children were a valuable source of labor. And when they became adults, they took care of their elderly parents. Because children were far more likely to die during infancy than is the case today, it was rational for married couples to produce five, six or seven offspring. Under these circumstances, men wanted to marry younger women in order to have a longer time period until their wives reached menopause. In other words, the age gap occurred not because women mature emotionally at an earlier age than men do, as Regnerus seems to claim, but rather because women needed more time for the many pregnancies that the family required.

Cut to the 21st century. Children are costly to educate and contribute little to the family economy. I don't know about your children, but I haven't received many checks from mine recently. People still want to have children, but one or two will do. Infant deaths are blessedly rare. So a woman who marries at 26, the average age in 2008, has plenty of time for the two pregnancies that are typically required to produce the size of family that most couples want.

College-educated women today are more likely to start careers after they graduate than were the 1950s college "coeds" (an archaic term for female undergraduates that none of my Johns Hopkins students recognize) who married and withdrew from the workforce soon after graduation. College women's lengthy path to the altar doesn't seem to be causing marital problems. In fact, the divorce rate has been declining among the college-educated while staying the same or rising among the non-college-educated.

The latter group, however, which Regnerus largely ignores, is worth our attention. High-school-educated couples are reluctant to marry until they feel that their personal lives are set. In particular, they require that the young man have a steady job. (It also helps if the young woman has one.) But in the meantime, they are willing to live together and sometimes to have a child together. The increase in the percentage of so-called out-of-wedlock births since about 1990 is almost entirely due to births to cohabiting couples, most of them without college educations, whom government statisticians persist in counting as if they were single. These cohabiting relationships are much more fragile than marriages. The current economic crisis, which is destroying more blue-collar jobs than white-collar ones (think General Motors), will discourage marriage among the non-college-educated even more. This is what we should be concerned about, rather than worrying about why college-educated women aren't behaving like the coeds of a bygone era.

Andrew Cherlin teaches sociology at Johns Hopkins and is the author of "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today."

Related: Mark Regnerus's original essay and reader comments.

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