Could 20-Something’s Parents Be Behind the Slower Path to Marriage?

by Barbara Ray



A 2012 study finds that college students think 25 years old is the “right age” to get married, while a majority of parents feel 25 is still a little too soon.

“The assumption has been that the younger generation wants to delay marriage and parents are hassling them about when they would get married,” Brian Willoughby, a professor at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study, told Science Times.

“We actually found the opposite, that the parental generation is showing the ‘slow down’ mindset more than the young adults.” As guest blogger Amber Lapp wrote yesterday of her own early marriage:

My husband and I certainly didn’t feel pressure to marry. In fact, my dad had reservations, and living in New York City made us feel a bit crazy for marrying so young. And I don’t think that my friends felt pressure to marry either.

Willoughby and his co-authors surveyed 536 college students and their parents from five college campuses around the country. The study was published as “Sooner or later? The marital horizons of parents and their emerging adult children,” in the “Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.”

“Initially we thought that this might be dads wanting their daughters to delay marriage,” Willoughby said.  But that wasn’t the case. Mom was just as leery.

A key reason for the hesitation is that parents want their kids to get an education first. They tend to think that marriage is better about one year later than their kids aim for. One year isn’t that significant, but it does signal a generational learning curve.

“I think parents have a lot of fear for their kids that makes them want to delay the transitions to adulthood,” Willoughby told Science News.

Perhaps that’s because the Boomer generation was coming of age at the peak of divorce, and are scarred from the experience. When they came of age, one of two marriages broke up. Or perhaps it’s because they know what an uphill climb lies ahead for their children in the workforce and in getting established financially. For women, as the Knot Yet report finds, delaying marriage can be a boon to earnings.

However, for men, the story is different, however. Men who marry later are more likely to have lower earnings (whether that’s marriage per se having an effect or the qualities of the men who do marry is an open question). In addition, men aged 24-29 who are married are less likely to drink to excess, suffer from depression, or be dissatisfied with life.

So Boomer parents might want to rethink their impulse. There’s also some positive aspects of early marriage. A study that analyzed information in five large data sets finds that those who marry between ages 22 and 25 are more likely to have better marriages. The Knot Yet report finds that women are most likely happy when they marry in their mid-20s. There’s also a higher risk for divorce, so we shouldn’t get carried away with the good news. But— it’s not automatically a bad thing to marry young.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I married when I was 25 and managed to pick a very compatible, loving man. We just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary.  I say “managed to” because it was more or less a stumble upon. I did not put a lot of thought into it. Really. I was blissfully unaware at that age of all the hurdles and potential problems and worries. And if I’d waited longer, I might have assembled a much longer list of “must have’s.”

My initial list consisted of three things:

  • He has to have a job
  • He can’t live with his mother
  • He has to have a car (it was Minneapolis, and winters are cold)

By not having a dossier of qualifications, I stumbled on a guy who had two of the three musts (so I was a pushover) and who over the years has become the absolute love of my life.

By marrying early, we also had the benefit of moving through life’s milestones together, which I think cements a relationship and a love. We moved to new cities, we moved overseas, we saved and bought a house together, we went up and down the job ladders, we saved for our retirement together, and we experienced the death of our parents as a couple. We lived a life with each other. That bond is enduring.

That said, I know I was lucky. My siblings both are thrice-divorced and they married early as well. So maybe it’s a crapshoot, but I have to think that if young people started a little earlier, compared themselves less to one another, and didn’t hold marriage up on such a pedestal, we’d all be better off.