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Marry in haste, repent at leisure: a piece of advice that seems as pertinent as ever, even in the age of the quickie divorce. Advice that more and more people seem to be taking onboard, given the rising average age of first marriage (although one can marry in haste at any age). 

In his column for the New York Times, Ross Douthut says that for Americans those averages now stand at 27 for women and 29 for men, “both historic highs.” But there’s an even more interesting statistic:

  • “…the story of late marriage is entangled with the story of rising out-of-wedlock births, thanks to… ‘the great crossover’ — the fact that the age of first marriage, which was once about a year earlier than the average age at which the first child was born, now lags the average age of first birth by about a year.”

If nothing else, this is an object lesson in the limited usefulness of averages, as ‘on average’ all Americans are born outside marriage! What it actually means, of course, is that more children are being born out of wedlock – 48% of all first births, in fact.

As noted yesterday on the Deep End, this isn’t good news for children. But what about adults? It is argued by some that changing patterns of family formation are actually good for women. There’s some evidence to back this up:

  • “Upper-class women reap a large wage premium from delaying marriage — a college-educated woman who marries in her 30s earns over $15,000 more annually than a woman who marries in her early 20s, and when you look at household income, the premium for marrying later rises to more than $20,000.”

However, it has to be remembered that this group of women are the least likely to have children before getting married. Looking at the overall picture for the whole population, one can certainly see a link between later marriage and the growing proportion of children born outside of marriage; but at the level of the individual, the two things are not one and the same and have very different impacts.

In any case, it’s not all about income:

  • “There is a health-and-happiness premium for marriage even in the carefree twenties: Married late-twentysomethings, male and female, are less likely to describe themselves as depressed and more likely to describe themselves as satisfied with their lives…
  • “More striking still are the numbers for marital happiness over the life cycle… women who married in their mid-20s (24-26) were much more likely to describe their marriages as “very happy” over the long run than those who married younger and those who married older.”

Why would early marriages tend be to happier marriages? Douthat suggests that “an emotionally stable person who doesn’t drink to excess is more likely to get married in the first place.” Certainly, we can infer various good things about the character of a young man who is willing to consider marriage and its commitments. 

However, the cause-and-effect can work both ways. As a social institution that raises expectations of, and confers status upon, those who shoulder its responsibilities, marriage surely has the potential to form, as well as reflect, character. 

In this respect, the primary threat to the power of traditional marriage as a social institution is not same sex marriage, but heterosexual cohabitation:

  • “[This] makes it easier to end up with semi-accidental, semi-planned out-of-wedlock childbearing, because after all you’re almost married, and you’re in prime childbearing years, and the rewards for putting career ahead of family aren’t nearly as high as they are for the college-educated.”

Cohabitation is, in theory, a trial run for marriage, but what it actually does is blur the guidelines for those who need them most. 

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