I was 21 when I proposed to my wife. I was spending the semester studying abroad in Italy, and I was surrounded by Italians and other Europeans who looked at me aghast when they learned that I was engaged to be married. I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, I’d heard plenty about how Europeans, and Italians, in particular, were notorious for prolonging childhood well into their adult years (i.e. 30 year-olds living with their parents, declining birth-rates, etc.). If anything, I probably thought they were right, I was a little bit weird. Even by American standards, Lily and I were preparing to tie the knot well before most of our peers. Here’s a graph I put together from data available at Wikipedia (don’t know what’s wrong with the thumbnail, but the link seems to be working):
As you can see, the United States is somewhere in the middle of the pack across the nations surveyed, but it’s an outlier with respect to its developed cohort. Even still, the average age at first marriage for American men is 27, for American women, 25. From what I gather through personal experience and anecdote, though I don’t have any data at hand to back this up at the moment, those averages increase as people climb the economic ladder. As I’ve gotten older, and gained a little more perspective, I’ve become more and more perplexed by this trend, and I have to ask, what’s going on?
Here’s what I see. Most people I meet (right now heavily weighted towards yuppies and aspiring yuppies)that are my age (currently 26) are unmarried. Most of those approve of marriage as a general concept. Most of those (though a decidedly smaller percentage and with much less confidence) want to have kids. Yet very few of these are currently involved in long term relationships, and those that are seem to have no definite plans on actually getting hitched. Why not?
There was an interesting article in the Atlantic a few months ago describing the situation from the perspective of older-single women. The author even went so far as to propose a solution for younger single women: stop waiting for Mr. Right and start settling for Mr. Good Enough. Do you think she’s right? Are people really just too picky? Seems possible, but I think that may be giving most people too much credit. It seems like that might be a relatively painless way of averting an acknowledgment of fear of commitment. If that’s the case, I have to say that most people seem to have an idea of commitment which runs counter to my experience with marriage. Commitments are hard. Marriage is easy. Getting up every day to go to work is exhausting and requires a conscious effort to balance the rewards (paychecks) with the costs (cubicles and crowded subways). Coming home at night to spend time with my wife is easy. Chasing tail in bars is hard. Going to the movies, taking walks, and eating dinner with your best friend is easy. Having kids by yourself is hard. Having kids with a spouse is a little less hard.
So I ask you: Are you married? Do you want to be? When do you think you’ll get married? What are you waiting for? Just curious.