In America, men and women are waiting longer than ever to get married for the first time. In the 1950s, women married at age 20 and men at 23. The median age at first marriage has been rising rapidly ever since. We’re now at an all-time high of 27.1 for women and 29.1 for men.
A new NBER working paper by Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak takes a look at what exactly has changed and gives a few reasons for why marriage has been so significantly delayed.
Far more people are living together.
Living together has become a common practice of American couples before tying the knot. Many use it as a way to test whether they’re compatible, while getting the benefits of marriage — combining resources, splitting rent, sharing chores — without the commitment. This explains the bulk of the increase in marriage ages, particularly in recent years.
The trend began in the ’60s and accelerated through the ’70s. From 1982 to 2010, there was an 8% decline in the number of 15- to 44-year-old women who were currently married. That was exactly offset by the increase in the number of people living together, which climbed from 3% to 11%.
Greater social acceptance has enabled more young couples to live together. The stigma associated with sex, cohabitation, and children outside of marriage has dropped significantly. At the same time, the legal protection of unmarried couples and the children born to them has greatly increased.
People also live alone more and for longer periods.
With the use of birth control, choosing not to get married didn’t have to mean choosing between abstinence or unwanted pregnancy. That made it easier for women, in particular, to choose careers that required more education, and made living alone more attractive for everybody.
The trend toward living alone was also boosted by the fact that technology simply made it easier. Washing machines and microwaves, for example, reduced the amount of skill and time required for domestic chores, and two-person households where only one person worked became less common or necessary.
There are fewer “shotgun” marriages.
As it’s become relatively more acceptable to have children outside of marriage, either individually or while cohabiting, and as birth control and abortion have become more freely available, it’s less likely that a pregnancy will result in rapid marriage.
More people go to college.
The number of men and women who attended college rose steadily through the 1980s. Then, men’s rate of enrollment began to plateau as women’s continued to climb. Today, women earn more college degrees than men.
That helps partially explain why the gap between men and women’s ages at first marriage has narrowed. It also helps explain the increase in age for both sexes, since attending college pushes back marriage timelines.