Historical Variation in Age at First Marriage

Read Jessica Valenti on media’s latest effort to get women to panic about their marriage prospects. Let me just say that the entire trend toward delayed marriage needs to be put in better context than this:

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.

These trends are very real. But people ought to understand that there’s a huge amount of variation from time to time and place to place in this. It’s just a kind of knee-jerk prejudice to assume that conditions prevailing in 1960 in the United States are “normal” and that today’s situation is abnormal.

Here, for example, is a table from Hamano Kiyoshi’s “Marriage Patterns and the Demographic System of Late Tokugawa Japan”


In the sai system, a baby is born at age one and reaches age two a year later. In other words, in 19th century Shibuki the average age at first marriage for men was 29.5 years (higher than in the contemporary US) and for women was 23.7 (lower than in the contemporary US) and the gap was higher than the Census Bureau has ever recorded for the US. In Wrighton & Levine’s Poverty and Piety in an English Village they write “The relative precocity of marriage in Terling becomes more evident when it is compared with another village — Shepshed, Leceicerstershire. In that midland community during the 17th century, the mean age at first marriage was 29.4 for men and 28.1 for their brides.”

Nowadays, the average age at first marriage for women is substantially higher in Scandinavia, Spain, and France than in the United States.

Social customs vary, in other words, and they’ve always varied over time and from place to place. People have a large bias toward the status quo, so if customs today are different from customs a generation ago that seems alarming. But “traditional” age at first marriage only arose in the west in the 19th century. For about two hundred years before that, it was falling, and the current situation in the United States resembles what Gregory Clark describes in 17th century England.


CORRECTION: Woops! Stupid math error on my part in converting the Japanese-style ages into American-style ages. I added a year when I should have subtracted one.