Marriage Delayed: The Why

So why are young people putting off matrimony so much later than did previous generations, and perhaps even later than they themselves would prefer? One reason is money: the economic foundations that girded marriage in the mid-twentieth century have collapsed. In 1970, a man could count on finding a blue-collar job that paid an honest wage, where he could continue to work until he retired on a comfortable pension. At that time, a quarter of Americans, almost all of them men, still worked in the manufacturing sector; another significant percentage were in sectors requiring little formal education, like construction, mining, or utilities. The large majority of workers had, at best, a high-school education; college was financially unrealistic and largely irrelevant to their stable, decent-paying job. By their early twenties, or even their late teens, they were ready to support a family.

Now, this world is all but gone. Good jobs for less-educated Americans have withered on the knowledge-economy vine. Good jobs for less-educated Americans have withered on the knowledge-economy vine. For years now, men without a high-school diploma have had little hope for a stable job that could support a family. Obtaining a pension is like winning the World Series. Now, especially since the Great Recession, the same hard luck has come to those who have completed high school. In 2010, the national unemployment rate for people sixteen to twenty-four with only a high-school diploma was 24.6 percent, compared to a rate of 8 percent for the college educated.25 “I don’t see a future or an ability to retire,” Brian Haney, 31, an unemployed high-school graduate in northeast Philadelphia recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There’ll be one low-wage job after another ahead of me. It’s just a nightmare.”26 Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that growing numbers of Middle Americans are postponing marriage to their late twenties or thirties, or foregoing marriage altogether, as they search for jobs that will provide them with a middle-class lifestyle.

Jobs that do support a middle-class lifestyle require more training, and many more years of it, often in the form of college. The college premium—as economists refer to the financial edge that comes with a college degree—has grown dramatically. By 2011, not only were jobs disappearing, but the average salary earned by a college graduate was 84 percent higher than that of a high-school-only graduate.27 Young people who can manage it are flocking into college classrooms, at least for a year or two. Sixty-eight percent of 2011 high-school graduates enrolled in postsecondary education that same year28 (though completion rates are quite a bit lower). For those who aspire to high-income, high-status occupations—doctor, lawyer, journalist, academic, scientist—training and apprenticeship can stretch well into the midtwenties and even thirties. Under these circumstances, marriage is not usually a first priority.

Another reason for putting off marriage is more personal, especially for women. Several generations ago, unreliable birth control limited their ability to plan a future apart from motherhood; even those few women who could afford to go to college thought twice before making the investment. Indeed, one recent poll of high school seniors—those on the cusp of young adulthood, found that nearly half of boys and over a third of girls did not expect to remain married to the same person. It’s no wonder that young adults are hesitant to enter marriage without a sufficient exit strategy in place. Today women expect, and are expected, to become economically independent whether they hope to marry or not. Earning potential is a hedge against poverty should their marriages end, as so many seem to.29 Indeed, one recent poll of high-school seniors—those on the cusp of young adulthood, found that nearly half of boys and over a third of girls did not expect to remain married to the same person.30 It’s no wonder that young adults are hesitant to enter marriage without a sufficient exit strategy in place. Middle-class young women also think in terms of having an identity apart from wife and mother. They want work that provides both an income and personal meaning—a career—which means years of education and on-the-job training.

Obviously, all of these circumstances change young people’s calculations about when to marry. Less obviously, it also alters how they think about marriage. Earlier generations looked at marriage as their entry point into adulthood and the crucial vehicle for defining themselves as mature individuals. By contrast, young men and women today expect to achieve an individual, autonomous identity before they become part of a bound couple. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett argues that these years before settled family life represent a new developmental stage—he calls it “emerging adulthood”: “the age of identity explorations, of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.”31 Certainly the single years before marriage have taken on a new cultural valiance.

In this new environment, marriage is transformed from a cornerstone to a capstone of adult identity. No longer the stabilizing base for the life one is building, it is now more of a crowning achievement. Ninety-one percent of young adults believe that they must be completely financially independent to be ready for marriage, and over 90 percent of them believe they should finish their education before taking the big step. Fifty-one percent also believe that their career should be underway first. In fact, almost half say that it is “very important” to work full-time for a year or two prior to getting married.In this new environment, marriage is transformed from a cornerstone to a capstone of adult identity. No longer the stabilizing base for the life one is building, it is now more of a crowning achievement. Some go further: 33 percent report they ought to be able to pay for their own wedding. Just short of a quarter even believe they should have purchased a home before tying the knot.32

Also helping to redefine marriage is what sociologists call the “soul mate ideal.”33 With women more empowered to support themselves and marriage partially drained of its economic purpose, the young are inclined to focus on marriage’s potential for deep emotional and sexual connection. As fully formed individuals who are financially and psychologically independent, they expect to meet each other on a higher emotional plane. Advice books and websites overflow with articles—“The Secrets of Soul Mate Love”—and instructions—“10 Ways of Finding Your Soul Mate.” Connecting with your soul mate, as opposed to choosing a husband or wife, happens only after the psychological work of emerging adulthood has been completed, generally well into one’s twenties or beyond.

25 U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, “Understanding the Economy: Unemployment among Young Workers,” report (May 2010), 4, www.jec.senate.gov/public/?a=Files.Serve&File_id=adaef80b-d1f3-479c-97e7-727f4c0d9ce6.
26 Alfred Lubrano, “Diminished Diplomas,” Philadelphia Inquirer (December 31, 2012), http://articles.philly.com/2012-12-31/news/36065152_1_college-degrees-associate-degree-labor-markets-and-policy.
27 See Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Ban Cheah, “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings,” report (2011), Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/collegepayoff-complete.pdf.
28 See Bureau of Labor Statistics, “College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2011 High School Graduates,” economic news release USDL-12-0716 (April 19, 2012), www.bls.gov/news.release/hsgec.nr0.htm.
29 See Catherine Phillips Montalto, “Married Women’s Labor Force Participation as Divorce Insurance,” Financial Counseling and Planning 5 (1994): 191–206.
30 Jerald G. Bachman, Lloyd D. Johnston, and Patrick M. O’Malle, “Monitoring the Future: Questionnaire Responses from the Nation’s High School Seniors, 2010” (Ann Arbor, MI: Survey Research Center, 2011).
31 Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8.
32 See Jason S. Carroll et al., “Ready or Not? Criteria for Marriage Readiness among Emerging Adults,” Journal of Adolescent Research 24 (May 2009): 349–375, http://eres.lndproxy.org/edoc/FacPubs/loy/BarryCM/ReadyOrNot-09.pdf. Also, our analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Wave 3 (2001–2002).
33 See Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, “Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?” in The State of Our Unions 2001 (New Brunswick, NJ: National Marriage Project, 2001), www.stateofourunions.org/pdfs/SOOU2001.pdf.