This month, December 2020, the U. S. Census Bureau reported a historic marker. For the first time, the median age at which men marry for the first time is older than 30. It is 30.5. That means that half of all men who marry for the first time are that age or older and half are younger.
The age at which women in the U.S. marry for the first time is at a historic high, too, at 28.1.
Data reported by the Census Bureau date back to 1890. Adults in the U.S. were at their youngest when they first married in 1956. Men were just 22.5 (though they dipped back down to 22.5 in 1959, too.) The same year, 1956, women, too, were as young as they have ever been when they first married – 20.1. That means that in 1956, nearly half of all women who married for the first time were teenagers!
The increase in the age at which men and women first marry has been fairly steady since the 1950s. There were a few small reversals here and there, but the overall trend has been toward first-time newlyweds who are older and older and older.
In the U.S., a Pew Research report predicted that “…when today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, a record high share (25%) is likely to have never been married.” The researchers were envisioning a cohort of 50-year-olds in which one in four of them had never married. That report was from 2014. Would their estimates of people who get to 50 without ever having married be even higher now?
The Trend Is Global
The U.S. is not special in this regard. As I discussed here previously, all around the world, the age at which adults first marry has been rising. In fact, a United Nations report documented that in Australia and New Zealand, the median age of first marriage was already 30 or older for both men and women a decade ago, in 2010. It was 31.5 for men and 30 for women.
As the age at which people marry increases, the rate at which people marry decreases, as does the percentage of people who ever marry. The same UN report showed that globally, in all eight regions of the world, the percentage of women who got to their late forties without ever having married had increased over the decade that they studied.
Age 30 Used to Loom Large. Is It Now 40?
When I first started writing this “Living Single” blog in 2008, the age of 30 seemed to loom as particularly meaningful in the lives of single people. In 2009, the psychotherapist Wendy Wasson talked to me about the fears and pressures that can intensify around then in the post, “Are the early years of single life the hardest? Approaching age 30.”
Now, it is utterly ordinary to be approaching 30 without ever having married. And for men, of those who do marry, a little more than half of them are older than 30. Thirty is no longer a deadline; older than 30 is a norm.
Changing norms can result in changing mindsets. I think the age that looms in many single people’s minds has jumped an entire decade. It now seems to be age 40 that seems meaningful, rather than 30. In several memoirs, single women reported that it came as a revelation to them, as they approached the age of 40, that single life could be a good life. (People who are single at heart typically figure that out a lot sooner.)
Changing norms also give us more high-profile people modeling the new trends. Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris, for example, did not marry until she was 50. I’m waiting for the Vice Presidents and Presidents, celebrities and role models, who never marry, and are respected and admired for it rather than harangued.
People Who Stay Single Longer May Navigate Life Better
Regardless of whether the people staying single longer ever do marry, I think they have the potential to benefit from those single years, particularly if they live alone. During that time, they can learn to do everything they need to do in order to manage a household, finances, and a life. As I’ve explained before, that can be particularly transformative for men, who traditionally have been accustomed to relying on a wife to do the kinds of tasks once regarded as women’s work. Staying single longer is beneficial to women, too; they also can learn to master tasks once regarded as the province of men.
If they do marry, the men and women who stayed single longer will perhaps split chores in less gender-stereotyped ways (in heterosexual marriages). And if they become single again, by divorce or widowhood, they may be better able to navigate single life than their predecessors who leaped across the marital divide before they ever really learned to manage on their own.