By: Evelyn Lehrer
Professor of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago
The average age at which Americans enter marriage has changed considerably over the past 100 years. During the first part of the twentieth century, the United States witnessed a decline in the age of marriage. In 1900 the median age at marriage was 26 for men and 22 for women, but by 1950-1960 it had fallen to 23 for men and 20 for women. Since then, a pronounced trend toward delayed marriage has emerged. By 2005, the median age at marriage had reached 27 for men and nearly 26 for women, an all-time high.
A pioneering study on the determinants of divorce (Becker, Landes and Michael, 1977) suggested that there is a window of opportunity for entering stable marriages, with individuals who marry earlier or later facing a higher risk of divorce. Using data collected in the 1960s, the study showed a U- shaped pattern of marital stability: marriages contracted in the early to mid twenties had lower divorce rates than those taking place before or after those ages.
Do the patterns of the 1960s hold today? If they do, the present trend towards increasingly older ages at entry into marriage would be expected to be accompanied by higher levels of marital instability. My study examines this question, with particular focus on the case of women (Lehrer 2006).
Most researchers agree that marriages contracted at very young ages are likely to be unstable due to a “maturity effect.” (Oppenheimer 1988) Young people often have inadequate self-knowledge and are uncertain about their own future prospects and potential. They are also prone to misjudge the characteristics and likely trajectories of their partners. In addition, many of their adult attributes have not yet even emerged, making it difficult for them to select a mate who will be compatible as both partners mature. A very young age at marriage is one of the best predictors of divorce.
People who marry at later ages, on the other hand, being more mature in all these respects, are less likely to make mistakes in the choice of spouse. In addition, people who marry late tend to do so when they have completed more schooling, which is another stabilizing factor.
But are the benefits associated with greater maturity offset by other sources of marital instability that emerge when marriage is delayed past the mid-twenties? The Becker et al. (1977) study argued that as time passes and a woman reaches her late twenties or thirties in the single state, with the biological clock ticking, she may revise her expectations downward and marry a partner who is far from her optimal match. If this “poor match” factor is strong, the effect of age at marriage on marital instability would become positive beyond a certain age. Marriages contracted in the late twenties and thirties would have a higher probability of ending up in divorce than marriages contracted in the mid twenties. Using data from the 1960s, Becker et al. found support for this non-linear relationship.
Analyses of more recent data, however, show that this pattern no longer prevails. Using data collected in the 1990s and 2000s, I found that as age at marriage rises from the teens to the twenties, the probability of divorce decreases steadily. Beyond the late twenties, the curve flattens out, but the odds of divorce do not go up, as they did in the earlier period. While the age at marriage-marital instability curve eventually flattens, the strongly favorable effect of postponing marriage is by far the most salient pattern.
Here is what I think is going on. Women who marry at an older age than average are likely to break other “rules” of marriage as well. They are more likely to enter unconventional matches that generally carry extra risks, such as marrying a man three years younger or more; someone of a different religion, educational level, or race; or someone who has been divorced. Such departures from the norm pose some extra adjustment challenges to couples, and generally they have been found to increase the risk of marital dissolution. But people who are older and more mature when they enter marriage appear to be more capable of meeting those challenges. Data from the 1990s and 2000s suggest that whatever difficulties these unconventional matches are posing for older couples, they are being outweighed by the protective effects associated with greater maturity.
In conclusion, the fact that a growing number of women are entering their first marriage in their thirties — often marrying partners who differ substantially from them in such traits as education, age, race, and ethnicity — is not a source of concern from the perspective of union stability. The evidence suggests that these marriages are generally solid.
About the Author
Professor of Economics
University of Illinois at Chicago
For Further Information
For information on recent trends in marriage and divorce, contact Andrew Cherlin, Professor of Sociology, The Johns Hopkins University: email@example.com, 410.516.2370.
For information on marriage dynamics and what makes marriages succeed or fail, contact Virginia Rutter, Professor of Sociology, Framingham State College: firstname.lastname@example.org, 508.626.4863.
On marriage, cohabitation, and singlehood among low-income families, contact Linda Burton, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, Duke University: email@example.com, OR
Waldo E. Johnson, Associate Professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago: firstname.lastname@example.org, 773.834.0400.
On historical transformations in marriage and divorce, contact Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College: email@example.com, 360.556.9223.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
To learn more about other briefing papers and about our annual April conferences, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research and Public Education, at firstname.lastname@example.org.Topics: Couples Conflict, Separation & Divorce