The income picture is a little more complicated too: while women who marry later do indeed make more money individually, this doesn’t mean they actually have higher household income than women who marry younger. This is because men who marry younger make more money than men who marry later, and women who do not marry in their twenties are much more likely not to marry at all. In short, a woman who doesn’t marry before 30 may personally make more money than a young wife, but the wife has access to her husband’s earnings as well.
Later marriage is also evidence of a larger cultural shift. There was a time when almost everyone believed that sex was supposed to be saved for marriage. This encouraged (or even pressured) young people to follow a pattern: grow up, find someone appropriate and settle down. For most young men, sex was directly associated with becoming responsible enough to persuade a woman that you were worthy of marriage.
Now conventional wisdom recommends that young people wait to marry until they have achieved most of their career goals, gratifying urges along the way with temporary romantic relationships, or even just friends “with benefits.” Thanks to this change in behavior, there are now—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—20 million new STD infections reported each year (at least 110 million infections total), costing at least 16 billion dollars in medical care, not to mention tens of millions of children born out of wedlock. For those responsible enough to delay childbearing along with marriage, infertility becomes a distressing and costly issue. (Black women are now nearly twice as likely as white women to report infertility issues.)
It is time for us to reevaluate the advice we are giving our young people about marriage. For too long we have suggested that delaying marriage is a responsible decision with no downside. But prolonging singlehood has trade-offs, and those trade-offs are long overdue for serious examination and discussion. Would it be such a bad thing if parents, pastors and community leaders focused on preparing both men and women to be mature enough to marry earlier? Perhaps that would be a step in the right direction.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.