Now that I’m a junior in college, I’m starting to get some pesky questions about what I plan to do after I graduate. Although I have ideas about what I want to do and where I want to be, I know that although it’s nice to have a plan, plans often change and so I try to keep my options open.
Yet for some people our age, it’s not about what they do after they graduate from college, it’s what they do before: get married. Now, as someone who has a hard time committing to a myriad of things — from which size raincoat I should order to what I should eat for breakfast — the thought of committing myself to another human being for the next sixty years (in general, let alone at this stage of my life) is more than slightly terrifying. Because marriage is not a goal I intend to accomplish soon, it shocked me that several girls from my high school class got engaged over the past year. To each engagement, my undeniably selfish reaction was to wonder what, in the age of the “modern woman” — where shows like Sex and the City and Friends glorify the state of single women — compelled them to decide to get married so young?
Now, let’s be real. I am not these girls. I am not in their relationships. And I have no right to impose my own concerns or beliefs upon them. Their lives are their own, and as long as they feel confident that their decisions will bring them joy, my opinion has no value. This article isn’t about them, or about anyone in particular. But the decisions of these girls did influence me to do some research on what the “experts” had to say about the age at which women “should” marry. And I discovered a pretty interesting dichotomy.
For example, recent articles from The Atlantic and Slate, published in March and April of 2013 respectively, champion marrying young. Karen Swallow Prior, author of The Atlantic’s article, argues that marriage should be “a cornerstone rather than a capstone” of adulthood, meaning that young couples who marry have the opportunity to grow together and navigate through the challenges adulthood presents together, instead of marriage being the cherry on top of the sundae, so to speak.
Similarly, in Slate, author Julia Shaw presents the story of her early marriage at the age of 23 as a helping hand instead of a hindrance in her adult life. According to her research, “only 21 percent of millennials (age 18-29) are married” but nearly “60 percent of unmarried men and women want to tie the knot” but don’t because “they just aren’t in a hurry.” This is because “marriage these days signals that you’ve figured out how to be a grown up” instead of representing a journey of discovery that couples embark on together.
These and similar articles in USA Today and the Washington Post draw on statistics from a report called Knot Yet: The Costs and Benefits of Delaying Marriage in the United States. This report states that the marriage age in the United States has reached an all-time high: the median age for women is 27, while the median age for men is 29. Yet delaying marriage, the report argues, has some drawbacks, especially for young, unmarried twenty-somethings. According to Knot Yet, in comparison with their married peers, singles and cohabitors “are more likely to be less satisfied with their lives and markedly more likely to drink too much.” The report goes on to say that while the marriage age has gone up, the age at which women have their first child has stayed below the marriage age, an event the report describes as the Great Crossover. “Indeed,” the report argues, “48 percent of first births are now to unmarried woman,” a phenomenon the report laments as “a tipping point” for the nation, as it is approaching a point where “the majority of births in the United States” will “precede marriage.”
However, while the report goes on to indicate the negative consequences of the “emotional turmoil” children who grow up in single parent homes experience, Knot Yet conveniently ignores the fact that children who grow up with divorced parents could face similar consequences as well.
Furthermore, while these articles and reports are quick to point out the potential costs of delaying marriage, they often fail to acknowledge, or at least emphasize, the very real benefits delaying marriage offers to women. Women who delay marriage are more likely to finish their education and as a result, find a stable career with better pay, which improves their chances of adequately providing for their families in the future.
Incidentally, delaying marriage, and therefore finishing an education, has also substantially decreased the divorce rate, according to the Pew Research Center. So even though delaying marriage may be seen as a “capstone rather than a cornerstone” these are some definitively tangible benefits. So, why then are news media promoting young marriage, especially for women?
Well, as Amanda Marcotte argues for The Daily Beast, (you can also read her personal response to Julia Shaw’s Slate article here) there are three reasons: “the increasing popularity [and legitimization] of same-sex marriage, the escalating attacks on reproductive health care access, and rising consciousness of the role class plays in all of this.” While Knot Yet’s report does acknowledge the financial benefit for women who delay marriage, it argues that this benefit is only for “the college-educated third of our population” but not for “Middle-American women” who are “playing a lead role in the trend” of having children out of wedlock. Instead of focusing on the role of class — i.e. that working-class women have less access to birth control and contraception than college-educated women, in part because of the state-led attacks on reproductive health care access — the report encourages marriage as a solution to the growing problem of unwed mothers. Furthermore, if states continue to define “the primary reason” of marriage as “starting a family” in order to counteract the increasing legitimacy of same-sex marriage, then it simply won’t do to have an increase in the number of children born outside of marriage.
At the end of the day, both of these arguments are designed to convince women what to do one way or the other: either get married young or wait until you’re older. And although many of these arguments were written, or co-written, by women, shouldn’t it be up to the individual woman to decide when she gets married in the first place? In the end, it probably shouldn’t matter at what age you get married, if your spouse is a man or a woman, or if you have children before or after you get married, as long as you, and not the media, are the one deciding.