The Marriage Crunch

If you’re among the millions of singles who are 30 years or older and concerned that your increasing age decreases the odds you’ll get married, think again! It’s not the 1950s anymore (or the 1980s) and according to modern logic (emboldened by a new crop of statistics), it’s time to shift your perspective!

To understand how far things have come since the days when age was a real concern among singles, look back in history to one particular week in 1986. Specifically to one national magazine and a study conducted by a group of sociologists called “The Marriage Crunch.”

The June 2, 1986 edition of Newsweek magazine hit the stands to a fury. Its cover article, titled “Too Late for Prince Charming?” covered “The Marriage Crunch” study, which predicted that women who failed to marry in their 20s (notice the use of the word fail) faced nearly insurmountable odds of actually tying the knot. Delayed marriage meant no marriage, according to the article, which in addition to giving a 30-year-old single woman a 20% chance of marrying, drew the conclusion that a 40-year-old single woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than actually find a husband (she had a 2.6% shot at marriage according to the statistics)… and this was before 9-11.

The waiting game
Understandably, the now infamous article (which covered the lives and prospects of 14 single, college educated women) invoked fear in the hearts of woman-kind and became a pop-culture reference point. The terrorist statistic struck such a chord that it was mentioned seven years later in the film, Sleepless in Seattle, and was debated yet again some 12 years after the study by the characters on Sex & The City. Proponents blamed the feminist movement, feminists called the study “scare tactics” and women who had never envisioned themselves as feminists indeed, found themselves scared. Would waiting to find the right guy mean they’d never find any guy?

Just a story
That’s what the story said. But 20 years later… my, how things have changed. We know this of course, from a cultural perspective. Time has unfolded and the predictions of “The Marriage Crunch” have been proven wrong. Baby boomers (the women covered in this study) show a 90% likelihood of having already married or getting married in the future, which is in keeping with previous generations – regardless of the age they chose to wed. In fact, while it wasn’t seen at the time, their choice to delay marriage was the beginning of a trend. Since 1986, the average age of marriage has increased (and continues to do so) and couples who marry later show less likelihood of divorcing.

The facts, man
Perhaps most refreshing (in light of the terrorist statement), is that a woman of 40 in 1996 had more than a 40% chance of marrying. And experts say that number is now closer to 50% – a figure which still doesn’t take into account homosexuality or the fact that some women choose not to marry because they find the single life preferable. Presumably, the marriage-ability statistics on women who actually want to marry and actively try would be a different figure altogether.

Happy endings
But what about the 14 single women in the orginal study? Jeffrey Zaslow, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, tracked down 10 of the 14 single women featured in “The Marriage Crunch,” and learned that eight were married, none were divorced and two remained single by choice.

“If they want to get married, women can get married,” Zaslow said. And these days, the options have expanded to include marrying younger men. So, as Stephanie Coontz, historian and commentator in Newsweek’s “The Marriage Crunch: 20 Years Later” concludes:

“The bottom line is, chart your own course. Don’t rush into marriage because some so-called expert waves depressing averages at you. Don’t avoid it because you fear divorce. Marriage is more work today than it was at a time when gender roles were nonnegotiable, when men had the legal right to the final say in many family arguments and when women had to stick it out because they couldn’t afford to leave. But the payoffs of a good marriage are also higher than in the past. And many of the older marriages being contracted now are between people who have the skills to construct those good marriages – more egalitarian men, more savvy women and lovers who have deeper friendships.”

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