The Grim Beeper

December 15, 2011

Today’s post is a Trifecta of Doom.

I. Marriage continues its steep decline.

Today’s Economix blog at the New York Times covers the latest study on marriage from the Pew Research center in Older to Wed, If They Marry at All. Using the 2010 census, researchers found that the average age at marriage has risen again, to 26.5 years for women and 28.7 years for men. This is not unique to the U.S. In the last thirty years, the average female age at first marriage has increased in 75 of 77 countries that were studied.

The number of marriages is also down significantly, down 10% in the last two years:

It’s not just a matter of delay either. Check this out:

Some have claimed the economy is the culprit but Wharton economist Justin Wolfers had this to say in 2010:

 You’ve probably heard the latest marriage narrative: With the recession upon us, young lovers can’t afford to marry.  As appealing as this story is, it has one problem: It’s not true. In fact, the marriage rate appears amazingly insensitive to the business cycle.

There is a rise in cohabitation that could well be related to the Great Recession, because couples are trying to save money by living together. Many of them eventually will marry.

The biggest drop has been in the 18-24 age group, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The mid-20s is the sweet spot for the lowest odds of divorce, according to some researchers.

Late professor Norval Glenn of UT Austin, in his published study drawing from five different American data sets,

The greatest…likelihood of being in an intact marriage of the highest quality is among those who married at age 22-25. The findings of this study do indicate that for most persons, little or nothing in the way of marital success is likely to be gained by deliberately delaying marriage beyond the midtwenties.

Paul Amato of Penn State explains further:

Once people enter their early to mid-twenties, the risk of divorce is reduced. Indeed, people who postpone marriage until their thirties face a dwindling supply of potential partners – a situation that may increase the likelihood of forming unions with partners who are not good marriage material. In other words, marrying “too late” may increase the risk of having a troubled relationship.

W. Bradford Wilcox at UVA agrees:

Couples who marry in their mid-twenties tend to do best, when you combine a consideration of quality and stability.

II. The college sex ratio predicts a dramatic erosion in marriage rates over the next generation among the educated.

At first glance, the news is less alarming for the college educated, if not for society as a whole. The share of college educated individuals currently married is 64%, down 16% from 1960. In contrast, only 47% of those with a high school education are currently married, down 35% since 1960. Marriage has been a more stable institution among the college educated population. 

That cannot last. The current sex ratio nationwide in American colleges and universities is 57% female, 43% male, and the gap is widening. This means that among today’s college graduates, 25% of women will not marry college educated men. Let me say that again.

Among today’s college graduates, 25% of women will not marry college educated men.


That estimate is actually rosy because it assumes that men will want to marry in equal numbers to women. The data was not analyzed by sex, but in an era of misandrist family law that’s a dubious claim.

Of course, women may choose to marry men with less education than themselves, but this seems unlikely to happen in large numbers for several reasons:

  • Women generally prefer men with equal or higher status.
  • Men generally prefer women with equal or lower status.
  • Society is stratified by socioeconomic status. 

III. Tick Tock Biological Clock

Despite progressive sex ed curricula in most areas of the country, adult women today are seriously misinformed about the state of their ovaries. 

During a recent story that aired on NPR one infertile woman in her early 40s couldn’t understand it. She insisted that she works out regularly, does yoga, even has a personal trainer. She eats well and is healthy. She never knew that her ovaries were becoming less productive in spite of those measures.

A recent survey found that women dramatically underestimate how much fertility declines with age. They estimated that a 30 year-old had an 80% chance of getting pregnant in one try. The real likelihood is 30%. They also thought a 40 year-old woman would have a 40% success rate, while those odds are less than 10%. 

Women are surprised to learn this information and they’re angry about it. One woman had this to say about her 10 year struggle to conceive:

 I just feel like it’s something else that they lump onto women that we have no control over. You tell us, “Oh, your fertile years rapidly decline in your mid-20s.” Well, if I’m not dating anyone, and I want to have a family, what is that information going to do for me?

Barbara Collura heads the National Infertility Association. She says the first thing women say is “Why didn’t anybody tell me this?”

Let’s be honest, women don’t want to hear that they can’t have it all. We can have a great job, we can have a master’s degree, we don’t need to worry about child-bearing because that’s something that will come. And when it doesn’t happen, women are really angry.

 So why aren’t women getting the message? How can women with master’s degrees have such a poor understanding of their own bodies? Three guesses, the first two don’t count.

“A decade ago, a campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine sparked a vicious backlash. Ads on public buses in several big cities featured a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, to warn women their time was running out. But women’s rights groups called it a scare tactic that left women feeling pressured and guilty.”

So now they’re feeling barren and depressed instead. 

The prognosis for marriage is grim. We need to take our heads out of the sand and speak the truth about this issue. It’s too late for the generation of women in their 30s and 40s today. Those of you in your 20s can have marriage and a family if you want it, but you can’t have it all. My generation of feminists lied to you about that.

You have some tough choices to make. What’s more important, career or family? When you think about graduate school, are you considering the full range of costs and benefits, including potentially delaying marriage into your 30s? Are you open to meeting your life partner in your early 20s, and filtering out men you know aren’t husband material?

There are no easy answers. The climate for marriage is hostile. If you know you want to marry and have a family, you must plan for it. Husbands and babies don’t fall from trees.