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?
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”