Delaying Wedlock?

Commentators have argued for decades that young people are better off socially and personally if they postpone marriage until they have finished college and are well launched in their careers. Many young people have been listening. Consequently, an overall pattern of delayed marriage defines the context for researchers who studied the differences separating young people expecting to marry early (between the ages of 18 and 23) and peers expecting to marry later (in their mid-20s or later). This team of researchers affiliated with the University of Minnesota, Brigham Young University, Loyola College (Maryland), and McDaniel College thus begin their report with an acknowledgement that “many young people [are now] delaying marriage.” “Since 1950,” the researchers write, “the median age at first marriage has substantially increased in the United States and is currently at a historic high—25.6 years for women and 27.4 years for men.” Consequently, in 2005 only one-quarter (25 percent) of women and only slightly over one-eighth (14 percent) of men ages 20 to 24 were married.

The remarkable delays in marriage should please progressives. However, the research suggests that many young people who deliberately delay wedlock are developing deeply problematic attitudes and behaviors.

To clarify “the impact of varying marital horizons,” the authors parsed data collected from 813 students attending six American colleges of varying character (three large public universities, two church-related universities, and a small private liberal-arts college). Regardless of the school young Americans attend, the researchers find that “most . . . report high levels of agreement that marriage is an important part of the projected life plans.” However, when the investigators compare young people who expect to marry before age 23 with those who intend to postpone marriage until at least their mid-twenties, they uncovered sharp differences in social attitudes and personal behavior. The researchers report, for instance, “the desire to delay marriage was found to be associated with higher substance [i.e., alcohol and drug] use [p<.001 for men; p<.05 for women] and increased sexual permissiveness [p<.01 for men; p<.001 for women].” Moreover, young women who intend to delay marriage report “less child-centered goals” than do peers who plan for earlier marriage (p<.05).

Readers may well ask: “Who benefits from later marriage—besides distillers, drug pushers, and doctors who treat sexually transmitted diseases?” Even the one benefit traditionally associated with later marriage—that is, reduced vulnerability to divorce—now looks dubious to the researchers. After all, they point out, recent studies have identified “permissive sexual behavior,” and “alcohol use” as “risk factors for divorce.”

(Jason S. Carroll et al., “So Close, Yet So Far Away: The Impact of Varying Marital Horizons on Emerging Adulthood,”Journal of Adolescent Research 22 [2007]: 219–46.)