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Marrying Older, But Sooner?

Mon Feb 10 2014
Written By: Jonathan Vespa
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The age when Americans marry for the first time has risen to its highest point since the 1950s. Although true, there is more to the story. With life expectancy increasing, Americans today are actually marrying sooner in their lifetime, despite marrying at older ages.

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Taking the long view

Although it is common to use the 1950s as a comparison period, doing so exaggerates how much the age at marriage has really risen (Figure 1). Looking at trends since 1890 reveals a U-shaped curve in which the 1950s and 1960s stand out as the exception for marriage, not the norm (estimates for these two decades are not significantly different from one another).

By the end of the 19th century, men married for the first time at 26 years old, three years later than they did in the decade following the Second World War. By 1900 their age at marriage began falling, and it took a full century before returning to its 1890 level. For women, it took 90 years (Figure 1). The idea then that our great-great-grandparents married when they were little older than teenagers is little more than myth.

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The rising age at marriage is not nearly as large if 1890 were the benchmark. Today the typical man marries when he is 29 years old. That is six years older than the historic low in 1956, but only three years older compared with 1890. The pattern for women is similar.

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Age at marriage has risen in tandem with life expectancy

By itself, the rising age at marriage toward the end of the 20th century looks startling. Since 1975 it has risen 6 years for men and women. Nonetheless this increase should not be surprising. Because we are living longer, we should expect to be marrying at older ages.

In 1890 the average lifespan for men was just 43 years, but they did not marry until 26 (Figure 2). In other words, they did not marry for the first time until well over half way through their lifetime (Figure 2). Today, men can expect to live to 76, yet they marry at 29, about one third of the way through their lifetime (Figure 2).

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If the proportion had remained at the same level as in 1890, men would not marry until they were 46 years old — 17 years later than they do today. Women would not marry until they were 40 (Figure 3).

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Viewed in this light, the gains to life expectancy during the 20th century dwarf increases in the age at marriage. What is more, calling the rising age at marriage a delay ignores life expectancy, which is not accounted for when we compare ages in absolute terms. Thus despite marrying at older ages, Americans are actually marrying sooner in their lifetime than they did a century ago.

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For more information, visit estimated median age at marriage> and the Census working paper on historical marriage trends.

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