Marry, Marry Quite Contrary

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

7/5/2013 6:00:00 PM - Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Not long ago, Princeton alumna Susan A. Patton bucked current conventional wisdom by advising women to find a husband in college and get married young. The backlash against this advice was immediate, with expert after expert indignantly citing research “proving” that women who get married young are doomed to lives of poverty and divorce, while women who wait longer to marry will be wealthy and successful. This was the gist of a column in Women’s Health magazine, which advised women to wait until at least age 30 to get married. The column was reprinted on the website Healthy Black Woman, offering black women the same counsel.

Well, advocates of later marriage can relax: their dreams are coming true. Men and women are waiting longer than ever to get married. The average age of a first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, and of course a growing number of Americans are not getting married at all. But despite the promises of experts, this trend has not been associated with happier, wealthier families, particularly in the black community.

There is of course nothing inherently wrong with two individuals marrying in their 30s instead of their 20s. But encouraging everyone, particularly black women, to wait until at least age 30 to marry as a matter of principle is terrible advice. Furthermore, the data used to support this advice must be considered in context.

The unfortunate reality is that marriage prospects for black women are at an all-time low. A recent study by Yale University tells us that 42% of black women have never been married, while a study by the National Center for Health Statistics put the number at 55%. Marriage prospects for everyone begin to decline significantly after age 30, and so women (particularly black women) who follow the experts’ advice and delay marriage may end up forgoing it altogether.

While it is true that women who marry later make more money, on average, than women who marry young, the real story is a little more complicated. The left-leaning Brookings Institution recently held a forum to discuss the report Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage. The findings, in a nut shell, were that women who marry later do make more money, but they are not necessarily happier.

The report revealed that married people in their 20s are less likely to be depressed and more likely to be happy than their single (and unmarried but cohabitating) counterparts. Furthermore, women who marry in their mid-20s are more likely to describe their unions as “very happy” after several years than women who marry in their 30s or 40s (or teens).

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.