January 22, 2005

People need to know more historical demography. This Time Magasine article [via mefi] is currently annoying a great many 20-something people because it seems to imply that they are choosing not to marry or settle down because they are immature. However, it annoys me more, because Time Magasine has apparently not even picked up a simple history textbook. If they had, they might have noticed that the current average age of marriage in Western European (and now North American) society has been moving back and forth between the early and late twenties for over 500 years.

The article states dramatically: "Back then [30 years ago], the median age for an American woman to get married was 21. She had her first child at 22. Now it all takes longer. It’s 25 for the wedding and 25 for baby." Funny enough, the average age of first marriage for women in England between 1610 and 1730 was...25, the same as it was in Crulai, France, between 1674 and 1742. For men in both places, it was about 27. Later, in England, the average age of marriage dropped to about 23 for women, in the eighteenth century (thought to be due to increased wage-labouring in the industrial revolution). Now it has gone back up again. So all this broohaha is about a long term shifting pattern in age of marriage, which goes up slightly when the economy is not easy to establish a household in, and then drops slightly when it is. Meanwhile, Time is off talking to social scientists and think tank people who want to theorise about young people "reaping the fruit of decades of American affluence and social liberation" or "that whatever cultural machinery used to turn kids into grownups has broken down". But if they had talked to any historical demographer (or maybe even someone who has taken a first year university course in social history), they would have found out that a relatively late age of marriage has been a staple of Western European (and related countries) society for centuries. Interesting, Margaret Mead got it wrong in this 1953 article, which is understandable considering that the historical demography research which showed that marriage in the mid twenties was an ongoing phenomenon in North-Western Europe (but not Eastern or Southern Europe) was not conducted until the 1960s. (So she was right to contrast American marriage with other forms of European marriage, but it didn't originate in North America). So this is my historical demography public service announcement for the year (or decade or century) - People in Western Europe have been marrying at the age we do for at least 500 years, likely longer, and for the same reasons - had to buy a house, get a job, get some land, etc. And Time Magasine needs to get some frickin' historians into their rolodex.

  • I'm a 20-something and I've always thought of "Time magazine" as a synonym for "irrelevant." I bet Time also thinks I should stop playing that music so loud and get the hell off its damn lawn, too.
  • A review of a recent book on the phenomenon. - actually happens to be the one I got my numbers from above (sorry, forgot to footnote. It's pages 28-9, if anyone is interested).
  • Time is soothing pablum for its audience. That audience is a middle-aged and up demographic that is benefitting from the political and economic trends (tax cuts vs slashed government services, soaring property prices) at the expense of its children. Far better to make up the ever-popular fairy stories about the immaturity and irresponsibility of "youth" (although how a 25 year old is such escapes me) than to suggest they are the recipients of an intergenerational wealth transfer beggaring generations to come.
  • Jb: you GO, girlfriend! My medieval demographic studies are a decade plus in the past (when I was busy putting off adulthood by staying in grad school like a overprivileged, irresponsible twit), but IIRC, the numbers were about the same for England in the pre-Black Death period, as best they could tell at the time. So, yeah, a fine case of anal-cranial inversion syndrome. Drjimmy11: the advice at the end of the article includes this gem:
    At the same time, listening through earphones to the same monotonous beats for long stretches encourages kids to stay inside their bubble instead of pursuing other endeavors.
    So you nailed it, except that even listening with headphones is proof that young people are immature.
  • All of this brouhaha (I love that word!) begs the question: So what? Things change, this too will pass, poop happens, etc. Is this such a problem that anyone should even care?
  • At the same time, listening through earphones to the same monotonous beats for long stretches encourages kids to stay inside their bubble instead of pursuing other endeavors. Ha. They nailed me. I also waste so much time dancing the lindy-hop, putting pomade in my hair, and driving my Stutz Bearcat that I just cant find me a wife, gosh darn it! Seriously, though, I would think the age would keep going up, if for no other reason than the freer availability and acceptance of birth control and the decreasing stigma on single motherhood. I mean, seriously, how many of those wonderful "meant to be" marriages in the old days happened for the simple reason that somebody got knocked up?
  • drjimmy: You sure you're not Mr. Smithers in diguise?
  • Interesting. People always like to believe that the current younger generation is in some way different to any that has gone before, but human nature (including the tendency to deplore the younger generation's behaviour) doesn't really change. Says an old git.
  • Matt Swann is 27. he took 61
  • More people go to college now. A lot more women go to college now. Attending and completing college are not aided by weddings and children. People graduate from high school at 18. They used to get married at 21. People graduate from college at 22-24 (a lot more people take longer than four years to graduate these days than they did when I was in college). They used to get married and have babies three years after they got out of school. Now they get married and have babies three years after they get out of school. Fascinating.
  • Well said jb. I read 'The World We Have Lost' years ago to discover that early marriage (and many other preconceived notions about the European past) were quite mistaken, and while I understand some of its conclusions have been superseded and challenged it does make this kind of lazy, misinformed journalism fairly reprehensible if an amateur like me knew it was untrue. Whatever happened to due diligence? I've always been lucky enough to have good editors challenging me on assumptions I've made when I've written professionally.
  • immlass - thanks. I would love to hear more about medieval demography - all my stuff starts circa 1558 (mostly reading stuff based on the Cambridge Group parish reconstructions, or people citing them). Do you remember what kind of sources would be available for the medieval period? In her first chapter, Hartman refers vaguely to literary sources, maybe court records. How do you figure out demography for a period without censuses or registers?
  • Abiezer - Laslett's World We have Lost was the first place I read about this as well, though I didn't realise at first, as it was photocopied as part of a course kit in an undegrad course. That is a terrific book, though not many read it anymore, as it is older - a social history which is about understanding the time and people, not finding theorectical models that work or explaining why some ideology is best, just about understanding where have come from and how that can help us understand where we are going.
  • Okay, jb, I'll bite. I agree with you that Western European society has, historically, been characterised by late marriage and low fertility rates. However, I am not so sure I agree with you when you say that it's all about "a long-term shifting pattern in age of marriage, which goes up slightly when the economy is not easy to establish a household in, and then drops slightly when it is". You are suggesting that, in this respect, there is a basic continuity in Western society stretching back for at least the last five hundred years. I'm not so sure -- and I think that a glance at the social and cultural factors affecting the age of marriage will very soon show that there are profound discontinuities running across this period. To put the matter in a nutshell -- the reasons why young people in (say) 1550 or 1650 tended to delay marriage until their mid-to-late twenties, and the reasons why young people today often delay marriage until their mid-to-late twenties, are so profoundly different that it hardly makes sense to consider them as part of the same phenomenon. Some examples: (i) In early modern England, the poor relief system meant that if couples got married before they could support an independent household, their children were likely to represent a direct financial burden on their neighbours. The result was that there were very strong social pressures discouraging young men from marrying, cohabiting or having sex until they were financially capable of supporting themselves and their offspring. (ii) In early modern France, the system of primogeniture gave fathers a great deal of economic leverage over their children. In other words, it was extremely difficult for young men to get married without their fathers' permission. The result was that they often continued to live in their parents' house after they reached adulthood and even, in many cases, after they got married. Clearly, these conditions no longer apply today. One might generalise as follows: -- that in early modern Europe, young people may have wanted to get married early, but social and economic pressures compelled them to wait; whereas today, young people often don't want to get married early, even if they have the freedom to do so. (Yes, I know this is an enormous over-simplification, but I think there is some truth in it.) The end result is the same -- and hence the headline figures for average age of marriage may seem to present a deceptive continuity -- but the underlying causes are totally different. You are absolutely right that the Time Magazine article is massively lacking in historical awareness. All the same, I am prepared to argue that they have identified a significant contemporary trend, even if they have no idea how to interpret it.
  • jb - Most of the demography I was interested in was related to the size of the population in England. I also noticed what information I noticed about marriage age because I was working on the development of the fee tail from the maritagium, so anything related to marriage interested me. Population data is really sketchy for periods without a census, so there are huge fluctuations in the estimates. I think most of it comes from court records and parish records of births and deaths with a lot of extrapolation. If you're really interested, you might dig through the secondary sources in my thesis' bibliography with special attention to Postan and Russell and their little tiff in the EHR. Mind you, I wrote my thesis in 1992, so my knowledge may all be out of date. I have had to add Laslett and Hartman to my Amazon wish list and I am yet again wishing I were back in grad school even though I know I don't want to teach. Dammit! /derail
  • SlightlyFoxed - You're right about the social pressure against marrying due to the poor laws (Steve Hindle has a good article on that), but these patterns of marriage pre-date the 16th century poor laws by some time, and also appear in other Western European countries with no similar poor laws. The basic pattern was, as imlass notes, set in at least the middle ages. Why this pattern started (if it wasn't always there) is largely speculatory - but the causes of change (like the changes we have seen from 1950 to now) have been linked to the changing economic situation. Just like from 1950 to now, the 17th century saw increasing economic difficulties for labouring people looking to get land/a trade/a steady job - it stabilised out, but one of the effects was an increase in the age of marriage to ages exactly the same as today. The age of marriage shifted down again after 1730, at a time when economic opportunities were opening up again. Now, you suggest that today's situation is different - that people don't want to marry earlier. Certainly, Time magazine found quotes from some people who feel that way (even one creepy man who apparently wishes to marry someone currently in highschool). But over in the mefi thread, many twenty-somethings were saying that the and their age-mates weren't marrying or buying a house because they were facing the same kinds of economic and social stresses as labouring class men and women in the tight labour markets of the 17th century (inadequate work, not enough positions, no security) - only maybe now it expresses itself as student debt. They aren't saying they don't want to settle down, they are saying they can't settle down as soon as their parents, because of their changed economic position. Which is exactly what happened when age of marriage went up in the 17th century. What I was trying to point out is that this rising age of marriage is not a new phenomenon, and to punch holes in the too commonly held belief that in pre-modern times all people married earlier. It might not be completely the same phenomenon, but considering the correlation between economic developments and the age of marriage, it certainly appears to be very similar. Then it may have been land or a shop, now it is a steady job or freedom from student loans - but basically, it's a living that can support a family that both groups lack. There may be some aspect to the "I'm happy being single, I don't want to marry yet" argument. I wonder how many young men in 1680 (not such a bad time, improving wages, entertainment to be had, etc) also decided to put off marrying for a while because they weren't so eager to take on the burden of a wife and children. Certainly, they would have a higher standard of living if they did. It was a very different story for women, of course, though they might have had also had reasons to delay marriage to make more money, for a little longer being adolescents (they also often had a higher standard of living as single servents in a larger household). We only know that X percentage never married - we don't know how many chose not to, or why they might have if they did. The answer will be, of course, what happens to age of marriage if the economy improves. It might never go down, if there has been permanent cultural shift towards a longer period of education and thus longer adolescence. Yet, as you point out, adolescence was once longer than it was in the early twentieth century - in the seventeenth century, French law did hold that a man under 25 was not old enough to marry without the permission of their parents. The onset of adulthood has not, as the article implies, simply moved later, but has fluxuated back and forth.
  • You're both wrong. It's a direct effect of the MILF on modern society.
  • I consider taking time to find myself a good career the prudent route. That audience is a middle-aged and up demographic that is benefitting from the political and economic trends (tax cuts vs slashed government services, soaring property prices) at the expense of its children. See also: healthcare and public debt. During my peak-earning years I'll be paying through my noses for boomers' medical costs. At least I'm Canadian; twixters in America will have the added pleasure of servicing ridiculous federal debt for decades.
  • Maybe we should start a "teach Lev Grossman some social history" fund? Or maybe a "Society for a relevant, factually correct Time magazine"? Nah, I don't think so.
  • I think Time also needs a copy of The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz to get over how wonderful the 50s were. I'd love to hear a solid economic historian weigh in between jb and SlightlyFoxed. My instincts are all with jb's, but I'm willing to hear other views. Any economic historians in the monkey cage?
  • Time magazine has been totally irrelevant for at least forty years. My parents subscribed. After ten years of reading it, I could tell in advance what Time was going to write about any given event. It's a complete waste of trees.