The Exceptional as Traditional

Conservative leaders, especially Christian ones, frequently speak out in defense of the institutions of marriage and the nuclear family. One example is Baptist seminary head Al Mohler, who not only writes eloquently on behalf on the marriage union, but takes it a step further and argues for people to get married younger than they do at present (this has landed him in some hot water from time to time). In two recent blog posts, Mohler cites something called the National Marriage Project in relaying the new demographics of marriage:

The National Marriage Project says the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 27, respectively, in 2005, the Marriage Project says.

Other reasons the National Marriage Project cites for declining marriage rates: the growing acceptance of unmarried cohabitation; a small decrease in the tendency of divorced people to remarry; and “some increase” in lifelong singlehood, although the actual amount of the latter won’t be known until the lives of young and middle-age adults run their course.

Unmarried cohabitation is particularly popular among people who’ve come from divorced-parent homes, says David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers and co-director of the National Marriage Project.

Typical explanations for people marrying later, whether you’re a conservative critic of the practice or not, are fear of divorce, greater acceptance of sexual freedom and cohabitation, and a desire to get one’s career in order before settling down. And for critics like Mohler, later marriage and sexual libertinism are evidence that adolescence has taken over American adulthood and the traditional union is in danger.

But what if that which some defend as traditional early marriage is in fact the exception in American history? In its celebration of the nation passing the 300 million population mark, Time magazine produced several demographic charts of who we now are. Chart #5 is of particular interest. This chart shows that the current trend towards “late marriage” is in fact a rediscovery of turn of the 20th-century marriage practices. For example, men typically married at 26 in 1900, a number they would not reach again until roughly 1990. The trend in marriage age for the first 40 years of the 20th century was a gradual downward slope, from 26 to 24 in men and from 22 to 21 in women, followed by a steep drop in the 40s, general flatness in the 50s and 60s, and then rising again thereafter. What some defend as traditional early marriage, therefore, is really the exceptional trough in marriage age that characterized the World War II generation. It’s a matter of starting one’s historical clock further back into history than 1960.

What I’m writing here is not really a new argument. Historian Elaine Tyler May recognized this trend in her book Homeward Bound almost 20 years ago. Traumatized by World War II and the Communist threat, Americans in the 1940s and 50s closed ranks around their immediate families as a bulwark against trying times and social upheaval. That which 60s liberals rebelled against–and today’s Christian conservatives are nostalgic for–was in fact a rather unique era of American history. This does not in any way denigrate the institution of marriage–I happen to agree with those who argue that strong marital unions critical for having a strong societal backbone–but we should be more careful of what we call “traditional” marital practices.

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