The Many Cases for Getting Married Young

In the Magazine
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile, via Getty

Pity poor Susan Patton. A member of the pioneering class of 200 women who turned Princeton coed in 1973, she is now, in her own words, “a nice Jewish mother.” A nice Jewish mother of two Princeton men who wrote a page-and-a-half letter to her sons’ school newspaper this spring advising Princeton women: “Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

“Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal,” she continued. “As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again—you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

Somewhat predictably, the Internet erupted, calling her everything from “elitist” to “archaic.” The first charge seems fair—as someone married to a proud graduate of the University of North Florida, I cringed at the idea that the Ivy League contains all the good men. But “archaic” seems a bit much. A college campus contains a very large number of single people with roughly the same life goals. For most people it is, indisputably, the last time you will be surrounded by such a large collection of eligible singles. What’s wrong with looking around to see if there’s one who might make a good husband? Or, for that matter, a good wife?

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-embed2 Are stepparents good for families? Despite the Bradys, some research suggests not. ABC Photo Archives

But somehow, we’re not supposed to say that, or even think it. These days, your 20s are not supposed to be for an “MRS degree” or starting a family; they’re for finishing your education and finding yourself. Marriage used to be the event that marked your passage into adulthood—the cornerstone of an adult life. Now it’s the capstone, the last thing you do after all the other foundations are in place.

As someone who got married in her late 30s, I’m glad that women aren’t racing from commencement to get to the church on time. Nonetheless—again speaking as someone who got married in her late 30s—I think we might now be taking things a little too far. It isn’t that I think we’re missing our chance to get married. In fact, compared with 1930, the number of 50-year-olds who report never having married is actually a bit lower. Rather, I’m worried that if we keep pushing for ever-later marriage, it will come at an ever-higher cost.

For highly educated women who delay until they’re settled, the risk is that they will outrun their fertility—a small risk, but one that grows as education and career start consuming more and more of our youth. Anyone who has watched a friend struggle through rounds of fertility treatments will attest that when this small risk hits, it is emotionally catastrophic. For those who delay, it also means higher risks of birth defects, as well as the probability that couples will be sandwiched between the needs of infants and aged parents.

That doesn’t mean that later marriage is a disaster: for the educated minority who are still living by the old rules, on time delay, the new marriage norms are mostly working out great. College graduates who wait until they are 30 to get married report an average annual income of about $50,000—$20,000 a year more than those who married before the age of 21. They also report arguing less frequently, and intensely, with their spouses.

When I look at their statistics, it’s as if the college grads are living in a different society,’ one expert says.

“In some ways the middle class has really cashed in on a form of marriage that we didn’t see much of historically,” says Kathryn Edin of Harvard’s Kennedy School. She calls theirs “superrelationships,” with high levels of rapport and satisfaction—not to mention income. The divorce rate for these relationships has plunged to levels not seen since the 1960s, and it may decline further. But there’s a big potential fly in the ointment: not all of these people are getting established quickly enough to have all of the children they want. A 2011 survey showed that almost half of female scientists—and a quarter of the men—reported that their career had kept them from having as many children as they wished.

Meanwhile, less educated women who will never have the money for five rounds of IVF aren’t running that risk; instead, they’re choosing an even bigger risk: having a child before they’re in a stable relationship. Fifty-eight percent of first births to those women now take place outside of marriage. And while the father is usually around at the birth, within five years, a substantial fraction of those relationships will have broken up. Since 1990, the age at first marriage has soared well above the age at first childbirth: the median age at which a woman has her first child is now a full year earlier than the median age at which she first marries, a phenomenon that a recent report from the National Marriage Project dubbed “The Great Crossover.”

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-wide1 In elite and poorer families alike (The Cosby Show, Roseanne), marriage is a net positive. Everett; ABC/Getty

“When I look at their statistics, it’s as if the college grads are living in a different society,” says Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins, an expert on family structure. And the college grads, unfortunately, are not the majority. The majority are the people without a four-year degree, for whom late marriage has combined with early parenthood to produce a crisis in family structure. The fragile, often fatherless family that used to be associated with the deepest urban poverty is increasingly becoming the norm for everyone except the educated: urban and rural, black and white, Northern and Southern.

While we certainly shouldn’t go back to the era when men and especially women had no choice but to marry young, maybe it’s time to revisit the notion that marriage should wait until all the other parts of your life are figured out. If people started looking around for a spouse in their early 20s instead of five or 10 years later, fewer educated women might find themselves on the wrong side of the fertility curve—and women without college diplomas might find it easier to hold off on having children until they were in a long-term, stable relationship.

Some years ago, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who studies happiness, found himself in an exchange with a reader of his bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness. That book argues, in part, that we are tremendously good at finding ways to be happy with things we can’t change. (For example, people who have an accident that leaves them disabled report, after a period of adjustment, happiness levels not all that different from what they enjoyed before their accident.)

Perhaps this is the difference between marriage and living together, suggested the reader. Marriage provides lock-in. Marriage isn’t just a way of signifying your love; it’s a way of creating that love.

“I thought, that’s right!” Gilbert told me, “and I went home and proposed to the woman I had been living with for years.” Happily, he reported, his reader was right; he loves her even more now than he did before they got married.

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-chart1 In a recent report, researchers identified the phenomenon of the “Great Crossover”: American women are having children, on average, a year earlier than they are (again, on average) getting married. And the results for American children are not pretty. 'The Knot Yet Report,' based on national marriage statistics.

OF COURSE, not everyone wants to get married. But the majority of both men and women do—and with good reason, though they may not understand how right they are.

In fact, the benefits of marriage are so great that it’s hard to know where to start. Economically, married couples are far better off than singleton households. In part that’s because married men make almost 50 percent more than single ones. And that’s not just because men with higher salaries are more likely to get married; a study of shotgun weddings (in which the marriage was quickly followed by a birth) showed that even among men who hadn’t necessarily been expecting to get married, almost all of this “marriage premium” remained.

Nor are those the only financial benefits of marriage. Marriage allows couples to pool resources and plan for the future, which means they can build wealth faster than single people. It isn’t quite true, as the old saw had it, that “two can live as cheaply as one.” But it certainly is true that one married household is a lot cheaper to operate than two single ones. One kitchen, one bedroom, one living and dining area. One cable and Internet bill. And while you may fight over the thermostat, you’ll still be spending half as much on heating and air conditioning.

Two incomes also make it easier to save up for bigger purchases, like the down payment on a house. And they provide a sort of insurance against events like lost jobs. Losing 50 percent of your income is traumatic, but losing 100 percent is catastrophic. Even if one partner stays home to raise children, that spouse represents a potential source of income that could be tapped in an emergency. If you’re single, well, you’re on your own.

The benefits of all this on wealth are enormous: on average, people who get married and stay married enjoy almost twice as much wealth as those who never marry. This economic shelter is probably one reason that married couples report being happier than single ones. But it’s not the only one. Married people are healthier on average, and they live longer. They also report better mental health. And for all those people who say that they’d hate to get married and give up their terrific sex life, married people generally report having more sex and higher levels of satisfaction with their sex life. While people who marry earlier get less of an income boost, on average, they actually report being happier with their marriages than those who wait.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that all of this is just the result of something that social scientists call “selection bias.” “The very things that have weakened marriage as a controlling institution that we can use to organize things like having kids have strengthened marriage as a relationship,” says historian Stephanie Coontz. That is, as the pressure to get married and stay married has declined, the unhappy, unsuccessful, difficult people have all divorced or never married in the first place. Work by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers indicates that the introduction of no-fault divorce caused both domestic violence and suicide to fall. If we encouraged those people to marry, the average quality of marriages would fall.

The longer you spend dating, the more likely you are to get pregnant by someone you don’t intend to marry.

And yet, that doesn’t mean that most people would be better off not marrying. If Google hires a new mailroom clerk at $24,000 a year, the average salary of its workers drops slightly. But that doesn’t mean the clerk would be better off without the job. It’s undoubtedly true that the declining pressure to get and stay married has made marriage look better than it used to; the folks who are still married are the ones who really love each other. But that can’t explain all the benefits.

AS SOMEONE who married later, I have to hit pause and admit that there are significant benefits to waiting. Couples who get married later are less likely to divorce than those who get married very early, though most of that upside probably comes from waiting until you’re 20, or 25, not 40. And for people whose educations and careers will demand that they move around a lot in their 20s—academics, doctors, diplomats—it may be easier to sustain a relationship if you wait until you’ve settled somewhere. One economist I know recalls being turned down for a date by a classmate who said she didn’t date other graduate students: it was hard enough to find one job in academia, she said.

That said, the downsides of my trajectory, writ large, are pretty hard to dismiss. To start with, waiting can run you into what Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys has dubbed “Grandma’s Lamp” problem. When you’ve lived in a room a long time, it can be difficult to find a lamp that exactly suits a lifetime of accumulated bric-a-brac. And similarly, when you’ve spent decades building a life, it can be hard to find someone who fits with all the choices you’ve already made about where to live, what hobbies and interests you will pursue, what sort of hours you will work, and so forth. “He has his life’s apartment,” Humphreys writes of an acquaintance who is searching for a spouse as he approaches 40, “the wallpaper, the carpet, and the furnishings, and wants that perfect lamp that will accentuate everything in its current form, detract from nothing, and require nothing to be moved even an inch. And he is dating women who are on the same quest, but apparently looking for an equally particular but different lamp. Good luck to him.”

For those who haven’t started looking yet, there’s another risk: the longer you spend dating around, the more likely it is that you’ll become pregnant by someone you’re not intending to marry, forcing the unhappy choice between an abortion, adoption, and single parenthood. And all the research shows that marriage—or a long-term, stable relationship so close to marriage that we might as well call it that—is the best environment to raise children in.

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-chart2 Are married people happier? A study found that those who had tied the knot between the ages of 20 and 28 reported that their lives are more satisfying than single people and even than couples who are living together. 'National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,' Waves 3-4, 2007–08. *”Highly satisfied” is defined as respondents in the top quartile on a satisfaction scale.

In their landmark survey of single parenthood, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur showed that children in single-parent homes do not do as well as children who are living with both biological parents. They are more likely to have trouble in school, more likely to drop out of school, and, later, more likely to become single parents themselves. Some of this is simply the fact that unstable people are more likely to become single parents and also more likely to have difficulty parenting. But even the children of widows and widowers do worse on many measures than children of intact homes—a problem that was recognized back in the 19th century, when disease and work accidents frequently carried off parents in their prime. Something about living with only one parent holds kids back.

That “something,” say McLanahan and Sandefur, is fewer resources. The Internet overflows with essays on the resourcefulness, grit, and sheer heroism of single parents who manage to be “both mother and father” to their children. But while we should have nothing but admiration for people who do their best in a bad situation, we should still recognize that for the child, and often for the parent, it’s a bad situation.

This is not social conservatism, it’s arithmetic. Having two households reverses the happy math that we discussed earlier: two rents or mortgages, two sets of utility bills, and so forth. It does the same for the amount of time and emotional resources that parents are able to invest in their children. Single parents report higher levels of stress, in part because of the financial hardship, but also because they get no relief from the pressures of parenting. If you’re the only adult in the house, it’s inherently harder to deliver the kind of consistent, patient supervision that kids do best with.

Even adding another adult to the house doesn’t always help, if that adult is not the biological parent of the child. McLanahan and Sandefur argue that stepfathers (the usual situation) can actually decrease the amount of time that mothers invest in their children, as they compete for attention with the child. And though grandparents and others may step in and help, their data show that this is at best an imperfect substitute for a mother and a father.

Our president agrees. “I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents—made incredible sacrifices for me,” President Obama recently told the graduating class of Morehouse College. “And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved.”

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-embed3 NBC/Getty

Some would argue that the real problem with single parenting isn’t single parenting per se but the United States’ weak social safety net. In a “civilized” (read European) country, they say, single parents have subsidized day care, a workplace that lets them leave early, plenty of vacation time, and so forth. And of course that does ease the financial and other pressures of parenting. But this doesn’t erase the benefits of a two-parent household. Even in Sweden, where single parents enjoy all of these benefits, children of single-parent households are more likely to be depressed, suicidal, or have a substance-abuse problem.

Unfortunately, this seems to be rapidly becoming the dominant model of family formation. In 1965, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, was labeled a racist and a reactionary for writing a paper called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Arguing that out-of-wedlock parenting among African-Americans, then running around 25 percent, was going to create social breakdown and entrench Jim Crow’s legacy of poverty, Moynihan argued for government action to offer black men access to the kinds of well-paying jobs that supported white families. As I write this, 73 percent of African-American children are born outside of marriage. But while large racial gaps still persist, others are catching up: the rate for Latinos is 53 percent, and for whites, it’s 30 percent. The big difference, according to experts, is not race, but class. Educated women are waiting to get married and have children. Their less educated sisters are waiting to get married, but not to have kids.

The new face of parenting is typified by Ellen (not her real name), a young, white single mother living in a small Midwestern town. She was raised in a middle-class household; her father ran a small business, and her mother worked for the government. But Ellen, though bright, chafed at the strictures of school. Instead of finishing high school and going to college, as many of her family members did, Ellen got her GED and stayed around town, working at a series of low-wage jobs that never lasted much more than a year.

At 21, she found herself pregnant by her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Clark (also not his real name). Her daughter is now 6, and she still has not furthered her education or found stable employment. She floats between the homes of relatives and friends, never quite having enough money to get her own place. At the moment, she is living with Clark in a house owned by her father. But her unemployment benefits have run out, and without that money to help pay the mortgage, it looks like her father will have to sell the place. All this chaos has taken a toll on her daughter. Often depressed, Ellen finds it difficult to get her to school on time, a topic that has triggered several screaming fights with her own mother. The sweet, doe-eyed girl has started talking back to her teacher.

As men have become less able to support their families, they’ve also become less attached.

The Ellens of the world aren’t rejecting marriage. Experts say that by and large, they want marriage as much as their better-educated counterparts; they just find it harder to get there. That’s why they have children early and marry late: unsure that they’ll ever have the kind of stability that they think it takes to get married, they’re not willing to miss out on the chance to have children. As economist Karl Smith has pointed out, most people view having children as the most important thing that will ever happen to you. Why would you put that off to wait for something that may never happen?

For low-income men and women, says Cherlin, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and other work that used to pay a good wage to semi-skilled men has made the privations of single parenthood much deeper than it otherwise would have been. Paradoxically, it has also made them more likely to end up as single parents. As men have become less able to support their families, they’ve also become less attached—and less able to deliver the kind of stability that women think is necessary before a wedding can occur. Among the poor, incarceration makes this dynamic particularly pernicious. Men are ripped from their families before they can learn to father, and when they return, their employment prospects are so grim that women often view them as just another burden rather than an addition to the household.

Yet economics can’t be the whole explanation. “We know that this decrease in marriage is concentrated among the part of the population that doesn’t have access to decent stable jobs,” says Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, but “it’s also the case that we didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression. That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.” (My grandparents were married in 1936, when my grandfather was 21 years old and working as a grocery boy. They rented a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole in the wall to put their stovepipe through, and set up housekeeping in one room.)

For some time now, conservatives have been arguing that the changes wrought by the 1960s have been good for elites, who have the social capital and resources to navigate the new sexual landscape, but bad for the rest of the country. Elites have plenty of resources to negotiate this brave new sexual world. It’s easier for them to get and use contraception consistently and to pay for abortions if they make a mistake. But for people who don’t have so much financial and social capital, conservatives argue, this has been disastrous. The failure of upper-middle-class liberals “to preach what they already tend to practice,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, has resulted in an exploding number of children being raised in fragile, unstable households.

“When [you and I] think of cohabitation,” says Cherlin, “we tend to think of people in their 20s who aren’t ready to marry yet, but think they might get married.” Among those without college degrees, it’s very different. “What’s happening is people who aren’t thinking of marriage at all make a quick decision to live together, often after the woman gets pregnant. There’s no intention of making it permanent.”

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-wide2 Unlike the Simpsons, many without a college degree are having children without the wedding bells. 20th Century Fox/Everett

You can think of it this way: everyone, rich and poor, used to face the same sanction for getting pregnant outside marriage: social stigma and the intense pressure to marry. Now that stigma has been removed, the elites still have ways to enforce bourgeois norms ... for example, by placing an almost equally intense social penalty on failing to graduate from college. But in working-class communities, there are no stable careers to wait for.

But even if you have quite a lot of resources, single parenthood comes at a high cost. Alexander, clean-cut and responsible, with a middle-class upbringing and a trail of prestigious scholarships behind him, became a father at 25, just as he was getting out of grad school and establishing himself in his first job. Though his story is atypical, in some ways it is very similar to Ellen’s, and to the ones that Kathryn Edin reports in her two landmark studies of single parenthood among lower-income communities: Promises I Can Keep and Doing the Best I Can.

Shortly after Alexander moved to New York, he met Molly while playing pool in a bar. (“Alexander” and “Molly” are not their real names.) She was a fast talker, and cute, and said they had graduated from the same university. (He later discovered she had dropped out.) Pretty soon, she’d moved into his place. They didn’t need to use condoms, she told him; she was being careful.

This is how most of the poor single women that Edin studied ended up pregnant; they said they weren’t trying to get pregnant, but they also weren’t using birth control. Much to my surprise, this was not because they didn’t know about birth control or couldn’t get it; most of them had used contraception early in their relationships. But after a very short period of time, they stopped.

“The way that poor families go about forming their families is relationships that have very little glue. The modal courtship before a conception that leads to a live birth is six to seven months,” says Edin. “If you believe the men, the women who end up becoming their children’s parents are simply the women they happen to be with when a pregnancy occurs.”

Single parenting means ‘constantly telling bosses and co-workers that you can’t do X or Y,’ one father says.

Alexander and Molly broke up soon after they learned she was pregnant. Molly asked for, and got, money for an abortion, but showed up a few months later saying she’d changed her mind. And so Andy was born—and what unfolded was the typical pattern of problems that plague the children of the unmarried. There were custody struggles and fights over child support. Molly was unstable and always broke, and though Alexander’s job offered better pay than most single parents enjoy, his moderate salary was stretched to the limit covering child support and rent. He couldn’t move to take jobs that would have advanced his career because of the custody arrangements. Nor could he keep the kind of hours that a young professional is often expected to work. Single parenting, he says, means “you are constantly telling bosses and co-workers that you can’t do X or Y because it’s a teacher development day and you’ll be working from home.” Andy, too, was suffering. He started acting out and had to be taken out of first grade to go to a therapeutic school for kids with behavioral problems.

Alexander’s story has a happier ending than Ellen’s. After a long, bitter, and very expensive custody battle, Alexander won full custody of Andy, freeing him to move to advance his career. Meanwhile, he met and married a lovely, bubbly, and incredibly warm woman who fell in love with Andy as much as with Alexander. They are now married, and 12-year-old Andy has a younger brother whom he openly adores.

Alexander’s story is the best-case scenario, but mostly because he had resources that most single parents don’t have. He had had a sterling education and a solid job when parenthood hit. He also had the know-how to handle the assorted bureaucracies that would give various supports to himself and his son. For people without those resources to fall back on, it’s much harder to make things work.

OF COURSE, it sounds very fine in theory to say that we should all decide to try to marry earlier—or at least to start looking before the magic age of 28. In practice, the difficulties abound. Virtually every expert I talked to agreed on what was needed to help lower-skilled workers build more satisfying relationships in which to raise their children: better-paying, more stable job opportunities (especially for the men), and a cultural expectation that you should wait to have kids until after you’ve established yourself ... that children, not marriage, are the ultimate capstone event. This consensus is comfortingly broad, and also, unfortunately, almost totally useless.

130529-mccardle-fe0220-marriage-embed4 Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC

Economists and policymakers have been trying for decades to figure out a way to restore the kind of broad middle-class prosperity that characterized most of the 20th century; so far, the consensus is “Beats me.” Nor does anyone have any good way to change culture. The intense stigmas that used to support family formation—on spinsterhood, on sex and children outside of marriage—imposed terrible suffering on those who didn’t marry early and reproduce on schedule. And even if we wanted to bring them back, it’s hard to see how we could. Especially when, for the working classes, there’s no longer hope of an economically stable future to wait for before having children. What can those communities say to prospective parents: that failing to use birth control consistently will delay your promotion to assistant manager at the Walmart? Given that the majority of first births to Walmart’s labor pool now occur outside of marriage, that’s not even necessarily true.

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying some sort of change—to inch the age at first marriage down, and the age at first conception up, until the lines once again cross. The average age at first marriage can’t keep rising indefinitely, yet professional educations and careers keep demanding a longer and longer time to get established before we cap it all off with a wedding. And for women without those opportunities, or aspirations, the problem is even more dire. Unless something changes, we are heading for a situation in which a huge number of American children—possibly the majority—are growing up without their fathers.

Cultural change is not easy. But it is not impossible, either. The first step, of course, is admitting we have a problem. Perhaps the second step is telling people on the cusp of adulthood that, hey, you should maybe start looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with.

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