What’s the best practical advice a parent, teacher, or pastor can give a 20-something today? According to one researcher, telling him or her not to hold off on marriage is a good place to start. Despite cultural pressure for millennials to put off matrimony and “take advantage” of their 20s, W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, says the science tells a different story.
“If you’d like to maximize your marital happiness,” writes Wilcox in The Washington Post, “your odds of having a couple of kids, and of forging common memories and family traditions, you might not want to delay marriage if the right person presents his or herself in your mid-to-late 20s.”
Popular wisdom holds that the 20s are the time for exploration, self-discovery, partying hard on Friday nights, and procrastinating on adult responsibilities. “Thirty’s the new 20,” rapper Jay-Z famously said. And many seem to believe him.
“Indeed,” writes Wilcox, “the median age at first marriage has climbed to nearly 30 for today’s young adults, up from about 22 in 1970.”
Of course, there are certain benefits to this arrangement. On average, say Wilcox and his co-authors in a recent report, women who delay marriage until their 30s earn more than their counterparts who tie the knot out of college. This shouldn’t surprise us, since women who dedicate more time to work and less time to raising a family tend to have higher earning potential. And research also suggests that those who walk the aisle later in life have a slighter lower likelihood of divorce than those who do so in their mid-to-late 20s.
But on other benchmarks most young people consider important, early marriage comes out ahead. In fact, when happiness, compatibility, shared beliefs, sex life, and childbearing are all taken into consideration, the statistical stars align for couples who marry between 22 and 30 years of age.
One University of Texas study found that the highest-quality husband-wife bonds were formed by couples in that window. In addition, early-hitchers were more likely to end up with a mate who shared their values and experiences.
Young married men on average “drink less, work harder, and make more money,” and are more likely to feel they have the right partner. Younger couples report having more frequent sex, which researchers already know contributes to happier marriages. And not surprisingly, younger women find it easier to become pregnant — a fact not lost on social scientists in a time when the demand for medical fertility treatment is at an all-time high.
Psychologist Meg Jay makes the same case in her book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now. In her hugely popular TED talk, Jay recounts a 30-something patient of hers who confided her struggle with finding a good partner after dating around as a young adult:
“Dating in my 20s was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun, but then sometime around 30 it was like the music turned off and everybody started sitting down. I didn’t want to be the only one left standing up, so sometimes I think I married my husband because he was the closest chair to me at 30.”
Reflecting on this state of affairs, Jay remarks: “That’s what psychologists call an ‘Aha!’ moment. That was the moment I realized 30 is not the new 20. Yes, people settle down later than they used to, but that [doesn’t make the] 20s a developmental downtime. That [makes the] 20s a developmental sweet spot.”
Everyone has a unique story. But recognizing the blessing of young marriage in a culture that tells 20-somethings it’s useless and boring can make a practical difference — a difference for families, churches, and communities.
God said it best through Solomon in a benediction to young couples: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth!” (Proverbs 5:18). It’s a benediction today’s Christian leaders would do well to offer millennials who’re convinced marriage doesn’t belong in their defining decade.