Arguably the most consequential cultural shift of the past 50 years that too many people are unaware of is the rise of what demographers call “median age at first marriage.”
Two simple numbers, one for men and the other for women, tell a great deal about where marriage and family rank among our culture’s priorities.
In 1950, the median ages for first marriages were 22.8 years old for men and 20.3 years old for women. As late as 1970, the median ages were 23.2 for men and 20.8 for women. And then those ages started rising, and they’re still going up. The figures as of 2013: 29 and 27, respectively.
What’s going on here? What does it mean? Those questions are raised in an important new study by the Census Bureau.
The study, entitled “The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975–2016,” opens with a sobering conclusion: “What was once ubiquitous [for younger Americans’] during their 20s is now not commonplace until their 30s. Some demographers believe the delays represent a new period of the life course between childhood and adulthood, a period of ‘emerging adulthood.’”
The “delays” referred to by the study are not only those involving marriage and child-rearing, but also other hallmarks associated with what we used to call “growing up.”
As the report says, “In prior generations, young adults were expected to have finished school, found a job, and set up their own household during their 20s—most often with their spouse and with a child soon to follow.”
Now we’ve previously talked about declining labor force participation, so let’s take a closer look at the “setting up their own household” part. Forty years ago, more than half—57 percent—of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 lived with their spouse; only 26 percent lived with their parents.
Not anymore. Today, only 27 percent of that group live with their spouse; 31 percent live with their parents. Even if you add in the percentages of those living with unmarried partners or living alone, the number of 18-to-34-year-olds living independently is ten percentage points lower than the percentage of those living with their spouses just 40 years ago.
What’s more, they don’t seem to be in any sort of hurry to establish their households, much less have children. While more than 95 percent of those surveyed rated completing your education and getting a job as “extremely” or “somewhat” important, less than half said the same thing about getting married and having a child, and three quarters of these only rated marriage and child-rearing as “somewhat important.”
I repeat, this is consequential.
One obvious consequence is demographic. Delaying marriage means fewer children, which in turn means fewer workers to support an aging American population. It’s not working out well for Japan and China, and it’s not going to work out well for us, either.
Another consequence: fewer and smaller extended families. Fewer children will have cousins, and if trends continue, their children will have fewer aunts and uncles. The support and social capital generated by extended family networks will become a thing of the past. It’s fair to say that more and more of our elderly will become, by necessity, wards of the state.
Now are all called to marriage? Scripture and Christian history tell us clearly not.
But for those not called to singleness, the command “be fruitful and multiply” is still in effect. It’s a command we ignore not only at our peril, but our future’s, as well.
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2017 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.