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It’s called the ‘capstone’ model of marriage – i.e. not getting married until you’re established “professionally, personally, and relationship-wise.”

Writing for Slate, Bradford Wilcox, one of the authors of a major academic study of marriage in America, says that delayed marriage seems to work out nicely – for some: 

  • “This capstone model is paying big dividends to the college-educated: Their divorce rate is low, and their income is high. We find, for instance, that college-educated women who postpone marriage to their 30s earn about $10,000 more than their college-educated sisters who marry in their mid-20s.”  

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out quite so well for those with lower qualifications and incomes. They too are getting married later (if at all), but they’re much more likely to have children before they do:

  • “…one major and more dystopian feature of actual contemporary twentysomething life is conspicuously absent from small-screen depictions: parenthood… most American women without college degrees have their first child in their 20s. These young women and their partners—who make up about two-thirds of twentysomething adults in the United States—are logging more time at the diaper aisle of the local supermarket than at the local bar.
  • “This would not be such a big deal except for the fact that many of these twentysomethings are drifting into parenthood, becoming moms and dads with partners they don’t think are fit to marry or at least ready to marry.  For instance, almost 1 in 2 babies—47 percent, to be precise—born to twentysomething women are now born to unmarried parents.”

By way of contrast, only twelve per cent of college-educated couples have their first child before marriage.

It is a truth universally established (though not so readily acknowledged), that a man married to the mother of his children is more likely to stay with them. Furthermore, a child not in want of a father has a better chance in life than a child who is:

  • “The reality is that children born to unmarried twentysomething parents are three times more likely to grow up with a disorienting carousel of adults coming and going in the home, compared to children born to married parents. This kind of carousel… is associated with higher rates of teen pregnancy, behavioral problems in school, and substance abuse.”

The trouble with the capstone model of marriage – as successfully practiced and exemplified by people on higher incomes – is that it sets a cultural standard that, while attractive, seems impossible to many people on lower incomes:

  • “All Americans, not just the college educated—watch the same TV shows and movies and pick up the idea that adults have to have all their ducks in a row—a middle-class lifestyle, a soul mate relationship—before they settle down. This model sets a high bar for marriage and minimizes marriage’s classic connection to parenthood. So large numbers of less-educated twentysomethings who view the capstone model as unattainable end up having the child before the marriage.”

In other words, marriage hasn’t become unfashionable, it’s become a fantasy.

So who’s to blame for this state of affairs – society or the individual? Well, we certainly need a society in which young men of all educational backgrounds can find a way into secure employment (see yesterday’s Deep End).

But something else needs to be understood – and mostly on the part of the individuals directly concerned:

  • “…becoming a parent, for both mothers and fathers, is a big deal, arguably a bigger deal than getting married. Young adults owe it to their children to try to bring them into a home with two loving parents who are ready to support them and one another in the exhausting, exhilarating, and quotidian adventure that is parenthood.”

Contemporary culture promotes the idea that ‘everything’ should be in place before you get married. So why not also promote the idea that ‘everything’ should be in place – including marriage – before you have children?

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