Articles about the sex lives of college students always create a fair amount of buzz. The article about University of Pennsylvania students last week in the NY Times is part of a much larger set of stories and articles (I recommend Ross Douthat’s take on the story).
The average age of marriage of both men and women has risen considerably in the last 40 years. For women, the age was steady from 1950 through the early 70s (it had been higher in the past) at about 21, but it has risen steadily since then, to around 27 today. Divorce during that same period rose sharply, but then fell. Dana Rotz finds that about 60% of the decline in divorce between 1980 and 2004 can be explained by the increase in women’s age at first marriage. The effect of age is also non-linear, meaning delaying marriage from age 18 to 22 leads to a much greater effect than delaying from 22 to 26 (there isn’t much gain for waiting beyond that point).
The decline in divorce since the early 80s should, however, be viewed in the larger context. Divorce rates are still much higher than they were in the 1950s and 60s. The probability of divorcing within the first 20 years of marriage is still close to 40%. For those marrying in the early 1950s, it was less than 20%.
There are costs and benefits from delaying marriage. According to the Times story, the women at Penn are actively weighing those costs and benefits, and are largely concluding that “hooking-up” is better than serious relationships. There are economic factors of course—finishing college has a huge effect on lifetime earnings, for instance—but the benefits and costs are highly idiosyncratic.
This story is troubling at a number of levels that I won’t delve into today. What really causes me to pause are some of the attitudes among the interviewees in the article. Let me quote this one in particular, from a woman who has a regular “hook-up buddy” who, according to her own account, she doesn’t even like when she is sober.
I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together,’ ” she said. That sounds terrible.
I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.
This view strikes me as both naïve and immature (indeed, she probably isn’t ready for a relationship). Successful marriage always takes accommodation and sacrifice. A marriage, in my view, isn’t as much about two people who have molded themselves into a particular kind of person and then find another “complete” person who is an ideal fit as it is about two people who are willing to work towards a common goal of figuring out how to make a good fit.
Marriage takes, in a word, maturity. Because age is strongly correlated with maturity, the effect of early marriage on divorce existed back before the sexual revolution, maybe forever. Immaturity is, to a large extent, selfishness, an unwillingness to accommodate the views, feelings and desires of other people.
What we have done to a disturbing extent in our modern world is that we have made immaturity permanent. We see this in the attitudes reflected by the women in this article. We see it in the millions of young men who are failing to grow up and take on the mature responsibilities of marriage and family. We see it in the persistently high rate of marital dissolution in our society and the increasing percentage of people not marrying.
The dynamics of marriage over the past 60 years is a fascinating and perplexing area of research. I’m convinced that as much as we may focus on demographic and economic factors to explain trends, the changes in underlying social norms and attitudes are still the most important factors.
No norm is more valuable—or threatened—than the old-fashioned one that marriage is about different people coming together willing to work and sacrifice and create something greater than the sum of its parts.