The Institution of Marriage: Still Going Strong

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, America’s young people embrace the idea of marriage, though they understand it to mean something different than it once did.

Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

For decades, the average age at which Americans marry has been creeping higher. In 1960 the average groom was almost 23, and his bride a few months over 20.  According to data from Pew Research Center, by 2011, average marriage age had climbed to nearly 29 years for men and 26 and a half years for women. There’s been lots of data supporting the notion that more and more, young adults are delaying marriage. Experts have provided many theories explaining this phenomenon: gender dynamics have changed, casual dating is more encouraged, more women are heading to college and then on to demanding careers, and—most recently—maybe most young adults just aren’t interested in getting married anymore.

The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll attempted not only to figure out whether or not younger Americans are waiting to wed, but also to gauge the thoughts, feelings, and views Americans young and old have on the topic.

In follow-up interviews with those who participated in the poll, it was clear that over the past few decades, sentiment about marriage has changed quite a bit. Many younger Americans expressed enthusiastic support for same-sex unions, cohabitation, and casual romances—the types of relationships that they think their parents would have had different feelings about at their age. Sarah Barton, 34, says that her path to marriage is not the same as the one her parents took. She lived with her now-husband for several years prior to marriage, as did her siblings, to her parents’ dismay. “They didn’t like that or approve. But for my younger cousins and family members I strongly encourage it,” she says.

And though she believes that the traditions surrounding marriage might be changing, she still sees it as a valuable institution, especially when it comes to having children. “It’s important financially, and if something should happen to one of us we are protected, we don’t have to go through establishing guardianship or things like that.”

The bulk of respondents—74 percent overall—thought that marriage was still a meaningful institution. But when participants were sorted by age, there were some differences. About two-thirds of younger participants felt that marriage was still relevant and led to a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life. But older participants were much more positive, with three of every four older participants saying that marriage still had an important place in society. Forty-year-old Dustin Henson agrees with his Generation X peers: “From what I’ve seen from family and friends people that are married are healthier, they’re happier, they’re able to handle problems better.”

Despite differing somewhat on whether or not they should get married at all, younger and older Americans ultimately had very similar views when it came to the best age at which to get married. Sixty-five percent of younger Americans said that the ages of 25 to 30 were optimal for tying the knot, and 63 percent of older Americans agreed. Interestingly, since nearly 60 percent of older respondents got married before they were 25, that means that they got married earlier than when they now say is ideal.

Barton says that she doesn’t think that there’s a correct age, but agrees that waiting a bit can be helpful. “I think when you’re a little bit older you’re more comfortable and self-confident, and therefore are more comfortable and self confident in your marriage,” she says. “From my experience it was helpful to be in my mid-twenties. My mom got married when she was 19.”

Younger Americans’ preference to delay marriage a bit may be because they’re much more concerned about their economic situation, and what that means for starting a new life with someone. Nearly three-fourths of younger survey participants said that financial security should preface marriage, while only 55 percent of older Americans felt similarly. Henson says that he understands the hesitation of younger adults, especially since the economy and the rising cost of living is making it more difficult for the younger generation to get their lives started. “It’s getting so expensive just to be out on your own. You want to make sure you can handle ‘us’ on our own once you’re married,” he says.

Financial fear may also be why groups were split when it came to children and finances. A significant portion, more than 85 percent, of young respondents thought that having your life financially together before having kids was incredibly important, while only 67 percent of older Americans felt that way. Older Americans were also more likely to say that the ideal situation for raising a child was when one parent worked and one provided childcare, versus having a household with two working parents.

When it comes to their views on marriage and families, Millennials don’t quite fit into the same mold as their predecessors, but when it comes to their desire to have stable, long-lasting relationships and families, the generation might prove more traditional than they seem.