Why Are People Waiting to Marry and Have Kids?

by Conor Friedersdorf

Ben Domenech laments that Americans are delaying marriage and reproducing less prolifically than they once did:

For the most narcissistic among us, the problem is even reaching a point in life where marriage and reproduction are viewed in positive terms. As Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in a recent series of articles in The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 if they get married at all further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Hymowitz offers several complex reasons why this is the case. But I say the simplest answer is true: American men today delay the act of reproduction and union because they devalue it. Because technology and culture (today, technology is culture) unite to encourage them to devalue it to favor distraction over maturity, personal growth over familial growth, and self over society.

Is the simplest explanation really that people today want fundamentally different things out of life? I think not.

Mr. Domenech goes on to argue that "Within the next few years, the American male will hit the highest median age for marriage in the history of the country. Perhaps this is a product of the new economy. Or perhaps it is the result of a media-altered vision of womanhood – young men who have an airbrushed vision of the opposite sex in mind can become reluctant to settle for normalcy and the face to face of the real world."

In my experience, most of the folks who are delaying marriage and family do want those things eventually. So why wait? Let me air some alternative explanations. Birth control is one factor. By decreasing the cost of sex, it changes social mores and lessens the benefit of marrying earlier (as does the related decline in the taboo against premarital sex). The rise of career women -- now dubbed "women" -- is another major factor. Given choices and opportunities beyond being a married homemaker, it is no surprise that many women rationally decide to exercise preferences unavailable to their ancestors -- preferences that require intense career focus during one's early to mid-twenties if ambitions are to be fulfilled.

I'd also like to push back against Mr. Domenech's culturally driven arguments, which seem to assume that delaying marriage and family imply devaluing those things. Maybe that's happening, but I'd argue that the opposite is going on too. Young people in the middle and upper classes in America delay marriage partly out of a desire to avoid the rampant divorces that plagued their parents' generation. The conventional wisdom that some folks "just married to young" leads to years long relationships wherein the participants are cautiously "making sure" that they are "ready to get married." They may be right to do so!

Reproducing is even more fraught. Young people raised by relatively prosperous Baby Boomers know that if they reproduce in their early twenties, it is possible -- even likely -- that they'll be unable to afford their children all the same advantages they remember. Even among my Catholic high school friends who married young and desire children, there is a widespread practice of waiting many years to do so, a period that is one of financial and emotional preparation. The middle class notion of what it means to be a good parent is simply much higher today than it was in the past.

I'm uncertain about whether these trends are demographically problematic, but let's imagine that they are. It is quite possible that later marriage and child bearing is bad for society as a whole, but good for the vast majority of individuals who do it. In any case, I am very suspicion of the "cultural decline and narcissism" narrative advanced by the piece. "In any case, we have now reached a point where parenthood, something that has been an expected and lauded part of the American life, is now viewed as inessential or even unfortunate," Mr. Domenech writes. Does that ring true to you?