Two days ago, I noted a new report that said that fewer adult Americans, 51%, are married than ever before. One of the markers of this trend is the rising mean age for a first marriage. But, a sociologist points out that it is important to have a broad enough context for the mean age of marriage:
But Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reminds us that using 1960 as a reference point can be misleading.
In 1960, the median age of first marriage was near a record low, having bottomed in about 1956. If you check out the trends going back to 1890, however, you get a much different picture…
“[T]he 1950s,” Professor Cohen writes, “doesn’t represent the ‘traditional’ family.”
The graph is pretty clear: the 1950s represent a clear dip in the mean age of marriage between 1890 and today. Suggesting there is a sharp rise since the 1960s in the mean age is not incorrect but it masks the bigger context.
This leads me to an interesting idea: while the 1960s are often considered an unusual decade and perhaps one whose reverberations are still being felt (consequences of foreign wars, sexual revolution, rise of youth culture, Baby Boomers, challenges to political authority, etc.), perhaps it is the 1950s that is the real unusual decade in the United States. The swift movement of people to the suburbs, a large crop of war veterans going back to school and starting families, an expanding economy, and relative peace (with the US as a clear superpower) represents an unusual period. Perhaps then the 1960s were simply the beginning of the unraveling of that “golden decade.”