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Getting married is easy today, even if less people choose marriage. This generation won't marry a spouse for just any reason. They want to get married in style to a soul mate.

Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
The Marriage Peak
marriage age

The incidence of marriage has been in steady decline for years.  The good news is that there's still someone for almost everyone.

I just read some interesting statistics that the institution of marriage peaked in the United States in 1993.  Since then, the number of couples getting married each year has declined, resulting in a smaller percentage of people over 18 who've ever tied the knot.  In 1960, 72% of American adults over 18 were then  married.  Today, that figure stands at 51%.  The sliding numbers among the under 29 crowd are the most startling.  In 1960, 59% of this demographic was married compared to 20% today. 

Still, 72% of all living American adults have been married at least once.  That's not a big drop in 50 years from the 85% of American adults who'd been married at least once by 1960.  That decline is only 15% and sociologists glibly explain it away as more couples cohabiting instead of officially marrying. 

The surprising fact for me is that three out of four people have been married at some point in their lives, and more than four out of five if we use the 1960 statistic.   I could believe these stats (or even higher ones) for a country like India, where marriages are arranged between families to form an alliance.  Getting married over there can be like satisfying a familial duty.  This was not the case for much of the United States in 1960.  Sure, there was societal pressure to follow in the parental footsteps and propagate the next generation.  My parents married right out of college and didn't wait long to have children.  Some of their friends married while still in college.  But by the time the latter half of the 1960's rolled around, I would've thought that many people would've taken matters into their own hands and done what they wanted, which would've included not getting married.

A hundred years ago in the United States, I could readily buy the 85% stat.  In fact, I would've estimated the figure to be over 90%.   There are many reasons one can marry:  religious reasons, financial ones, sexual ones.   In 1912, no one would've cared what those reasons were.  When one reached marriageable age, s/he married.  If the spouses loved each other, all the better, although that wasn't required.  When everyday people think of reasons to get married today, the first one that invariably comes up – some say the only valid reason – is love.  Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, conducted a survey among 18 to 29 years olds, some single, some married.  An overwhelming 86% agreed with the statement that they expected to have a marriage which lasted a lifetime.  In another survey, close to 90% said that they expected to have a soul mate as a spouse.  This is a very romantic love-oriented view towards marriage.   Not many commented that they expected their marriage to last for a lifetime because their expected spouse would be the same religion or had deep pockets, for instance.

Obviously, many of these survey respondents, probably most, won't marry a soul mate.  If they did, the divorce rate wouldn't be one in two.  Yep, half those newlyweds I met on that Caribbean cruise back in 2001 are divorced now.   In John Croucher's book Love By Numbers, only 39% of people thought they married their soul mate.  This question was, of course, asked in retrospect.   More might've responded affirmatively if queried just after they stood on the altar.   However, 32% of the respondents in Croucher's book were sure they didn't marry their soul mates, a not-so-surprising conclusion really.  Plenty of idealistic teens realize they have to settle for less than their ideal by the time they walk down the aisle.

In the book Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others, author John Malloy states, based on thousands of interviews, that a man's chances for getting married drop dramatically after age thirty-eight and dive even more once he reaches forty-two or forty-three.  After that point, he's likely a confirmed bachelor. 

Malloy's findings are especially apposite to my own circumstances.  I didn't meet my wife-to-be until after I passed the first drop-off age.  I didn't get married until I was at the age when I should've been labeled a perpetual confirmed bachelor.  I am not arguing with Malloy's results.  My brother's age just passed the second drop off point, and he's not married or about to become so.  If people were taking bets, they'd overwhelmingly vote that he'll never get married.

The reasons I remained single well past the typical marriageable age and my brother continues to remains so isn't so complicated.     We hadn't met anyone we felt was worth marrying.   I'm shocked this is such a revolutionary concept.  Would you put serious investment into a car or a house you weren't crazy about, with the understanding you'd have to keep them for forty or fifty more years?   I don't think you'd even be excited to do it if you knew you only had to keep the house or car for five years unless these were all you could afford and you were extremely desperate.   I have yet to meet someone outside the circle of Hollywood celebrities who marries someone with the logic that they can easily trade this person in within five years. The institution of marriage still maintains the ideal of being until death do you part.

Now you have to recall that there are other reasons people get married.  I once dated a girl in the late 1990's whose primary objective was to be a mother.  She wasn't all that selective who was providing the sperms.  Since she wasn't the type to become a single mother by choice, marriage was an inevitable step.  In my opinion, the desire to have children would be a case for being even more selective in the choice of a mate.  I wouldn't want just anyone's DNA contributing to my future offspring, and I'd want a reliable partner to assist in the upbringing.  Religious reasons are strong, too.  A born again Christian or an Orthodox Jew is going to get married sooner rather than later and to whomever is nearby when they're in their early to mid-twenties. 

Personally, I was always surprised that most people who are 25-28 are confident enough to make a lifelong decision about marriage.  I certainly didn't feel that way when I was that age.  Had I married any of the girls I was with at that stage in my life, they would've ended up in disaster – and I knew it then.  Now that those ages are far behind me and I consider myself older and wiser, I am all the more surprised that people in their mid- to late-twenties think they've got enough experience to make this call.

And they probably don't.  To many, marriage is viewed as competition, much like the economics of choice school placements.  Parents try to score their nursery school kids spots in a prime nursery school, thinking that doing so early in the kid's life will involve less competition and secure better placement in the education programs that come later.  As more parents seek to play this angle, competition to get into that nursery school becomes ridiculously intense     Parents fears that if they wait too long to get Junior a privileged place, they may be crowded out for good. 

There's this inescapable element among young couples over age 22 that a clock is ticking somewhere.  This is particularly evident among women who really must face a very finite biological clock.  It's perceived that if a final choice isn't made by age 28 or 30 or whatever the deemed cut off age is for that culture/area/ethnic community, the person standing single will be shut out of the last seat in a game of matchmaking musical chairs. 

But there's a major flaw in that line of thinking.  If you don't happen to be living in a region in China where there may be a shortage of women due to the one-child policy, there's really no shortage of prospects to marry . . . ever.  A man could marry someone ten years younger if his age pool is truly “used up” already.  A woman could marry a man ten years older.   One could find a spouse abroad.   I'd argue that you don't even need to resort to age leaping or country skipping to tie the knot.  Myriad dating sites and Craig's List are there for you.

Back in my high school days on a student trip to Israel, one of my fellow travelers was a nerdy, rather socially inept kid.  This is not the kind of guy who'd do well at a mixer or on a blind date.  In days of yore, outside of countries with an arranged marriage tradition, people in this category were not primed to find willing spouses and their undesirable seed would remain unpropagated.   In today's climate, a profile on Match, eHarmony, or Jdate can get two desperates matched up in no time.    This is exactly what happened to him.  He's been married for several years now.  This guy could be any nerd, anywhere.

The net can be cast wider now.   Are you a 50-year old male and considered unmarriageable by the conventional stats?   Big deal.  Come to Thailand and you can marry a woman half your age on Monday and have her impregnated by Tuesday.  Similar marriage-impregnation opportunities exist in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and much of eastern Africa.   There really is someone for everyone if you're not very particular who that someone is.

However, I believe that most people from Generation X and after are particular with whom they marry.  My brother has none of the classic signs of a commitment phobe. He just hasn't met anyone he'd want to sign a permanent contract with.  I was the same.   If I hadn't met someone who inspired me and made by life better than it was living solo, I would've preferred to stay alone.  I may be one of the few remaining adults alive who actually loved living by himself.   There  must be plenty of others who'd prefer bachelorhood to a significant other who isn't close to their ideal. 

Pew Research did some analysis and discovered that the number of new marriages in the United States declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010.  The drop is not due to the economic downturn, as many surmise.  Matthew Hill in his paper entitled Love In the Time Of Depression:  The Effect Of Economic Downturns on the Probability of Marriage  states that recent business cycles had had no effect on marriage rates.   He points out that marriage fells in the 2007-09 recession, but fell at the same amount during the 2004-06 boom years.  

People today are choosier whom they marry and less beholden to society's clock when they have to marry.  Marriage is not the only gateway to a future family.   Childrearing can be a solo activity without the parent being stigmatized as s/he would be a generation ago.

The overall marriage stats are only as high as they seem because of the generations still alive that came before mine, all those people born in the 1950's and before.  These people followed the rules and got married, like it or not.   As those people start dying off, I expect the figures you'll be left with will mirror the values the current generations share.  In twenty years' time, you will see more sixtysomethings who've never been married, single grandmothers who've never had a spouse, and sixtysomethings with no grandchildren at all.

Infinite choice means not having to choose anyone at all. 

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