To some extent there’s just a divergence in values underlying the kind of people who think political pundits should write fussy columns fretting about the age at which people get married and the kind of people who think that’s bizarre. But one thing that I find really striking about conservative interest in the increasing age of marriage is their total lack of interest in actually exploring this subject beyond a token factoid:
This is the period of life in which society’s most important social commitments take shape — commitments that produce stability, happiness and children. But the facts of life for 20-somethings are challenging. Puberty — mainly because of improved health — comes steadily sooner. Sexual activity kicks off earlier. But the average age at which people marry has grown later; it is now about 26 for women, 28 for men.
One thing I’ve noted about this before is that age at first marriage is something that varies quite a bit historically and socially. I haven’t researched this hyper-rigorously, but thanks to some quick Googling I see that in European Sexualities: 1400–1800, Katherine Crawford reports “In Florence, average age at first marriage was over 30 for men and below 18 for women. Figures for Spanish communities are similar.”
I also found this chart in a Census Bureau PowerPoint presentation that seems relevant:
It looks, in other words, like the big shift came not in the dread sixties or in recent times. Instead, there was a large structural shift in the mid-70s and 80s. What does that prove? I don’t know. But that’s the same period during which a lot of elements of our society and economy shifted.
In her essay “Teenage Pregnancy in England: A Historical Perspective” Hera Cook writes that starting in the 16th century in northwestern Europe “the image of women marrying in their teens with a high premium placed on virginity applied only to the aristocracy . . . [t]he average age of marriage was high by world standards, 24 years for women and 26 years for men, and 10–20% of the population did not marry.” She cites the need to save up money in order to start a new household before marrying as the cause of delayed marriage. Non-married couples were very eager not to get pregnant and lacked reliable means of contraception so “in their teens and early twenties, many men and women engaged in erotic play or petting, including kissing, embracing and hand/genital contact.” Then “age at marriage fell and birth rates rose in the decades around 1800, largely as a result of the introduction of wage labor.”
Long story short, this stuff changes all the time. And it usually changes for real reasons. Given flat wages and a rising skill premium — and declining wages for men — delayed marriage seems inevitable. Would it be better for people to live their lives in a way that completely ignores economic reality? Does Gerson want to try to re-order the economy in order to better fit his ideal of when people should get married? There’s probably a column topic in here somewhere.
Chart now has its labels back. Don’t understand why that didn’t copy correctly the first time.