Marriage and the Dismal Science

Mark Driscoll has a poorly-worded lecture for the singletons up at the Mars Hill blog:

For the first time in American history, the majority of adults are single rather than married. Nine out of ten people eventually marry. The average man is about 30 years old for his first marriage, and the average woman is in her late 20s for her first marriage. This is nearly a decade later than was the case 60 years ago, which has contributed to such things as fornication and cohabitation.

Despite all the plagiarism accusations, I have little doubt that Driscoll actually wrote that paragraph. If you can’t parse it, Driscoll seems to be suggesting that the rise in the median age of marriage over the past 60 years is leading to increased fornication and cohabitation. (And!?) He’s drawing his numbers from a Pew forum piece.

Driscoll goes on to offer fatherly advice to the singletons, suggesting that there are many misconceptions about marriage. Driscoll apparently believes that the rise in marriage age is caused by cultural factors. If people just understood was marriage was really like, then more people would get married younger.

I’ve got a problem with that assumption. I think it’s best illustrated by this graph from the US Census:

That’s rather striking, isn’t it? Look at that dip at the 1950s. And that’s the point where Pew starts measuring. I think that skews Driscoll’s whole piece.

Is this a social thing? Was 1950 a brief golden age of marriage in which everybody just understood what marriage meant and got hitched early? Call that the “greatest generation” hypothesis.

Another hypothesis is that the social expressions of dating and marriage are heavily influenced by economics. That dip at 1950 represents the post-war boom. This was the era of breadwinner salaries and stable companies. Men and women became financially stable earlier, and felt they could count on remaining stable.

In contrast, the late 19th century had experienced waves of economic crashes, and there was much less security and social mobility. And now … well, we may be past the era of financial stability.

The boom created a situation where people could comfortably marry early. The 50s were the age of “going steady.” It wasn’t uncommon to see teens exchange class rings, becoming pre-engaged, so to speak. It replaced an age of much more frenetic dating where you might have several dance partners at several dance halls over the course of one night. And of course it’s been replaced by … whatever it is we have now. (I’m REALLY the wrong person to ask.)

I think Driscoll has got the wrong end of the stick here. While there are plenty of social factors to consider, but they do less than the economic factors in explaining the changes in marriage age.

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