More young Americans than ever are kicking cans down the road instead of dragging them from their bumpers. In other words, they’re putting off marriage for ever longer periods of time, creating long-term problems for those who don’t wait to have sex and lengthening temptation for those who do wait, especially 20-something Christians.
Writing in World, Warren Cole Smith shares insights from Jennifer Marshall’s recent speech at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Marshall, a social policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, says the trend among young adults of pushing marriage into their late 20s and beyond spells trouble, which is why she urges Christians to lead the way in helping Americans rethink their priorities.
“The median age of first marriage has risen six years in the last four decades,” says Marshall. “Almost half of women are still single at age 30. That’s compared to an extremely low percentage of aged-30 women in 1970 who were single. We’re having really profound changes. That’s something we’ve got to talk about, particularly in the church where we clearly do prize marriage and want people to be able to find their way to that and have cultural support from the church community. If we’re not talking about that, we’ve got problems.”
What kinds of problems? For one thing, says Marshall, late marriage means late childbearing. And when a sizable percentage or even a majority of women forego their best childbearing years, they see increases in infertility and complications. Even if all goes as planned, she reminded her audience, young people who reallocate to school and career the years historically spent rearing families simply have less time left over when they get around to marriage and children.
And it’s not a rare phenomenon. These days, not saying “I do” or welcoming a newborn until after college and vocation has become the norm. According to recent statistics, a record-breaking number of American adults are single, and fertility rates have dropped into negative territory (more Americans are dying than being born). And because most Americans in their 20s aren’t waiting until marriage to sleep with their romantic partners, it means the marriages they do eventually enter will be less stable, less satisfying, and more likely to end in divorce.
And that’s just the array of problems facing singles as a demographic. Focusing on just the Christian singles, a new set of challenges emerges.
“We [in the church] are teaching kids at 14 to wait until they get married before they have sex,” says Marshall. “Historically, that might have been until they were 21. If they’re not getting married until they’re 30, that looks like a really tough hurdle. As a public policy person looking at these questions, we look at the aggregate data. As the typical age of first marriage is climbing, we’re also seeing cohabitation rates climb. We’re seeing unwed childbearing climb dramatically.”
Without the “easy out” of premarital sex and cohabitation, Christian young people often find themselves in a struggle to keep themselves for a honeymoon that could be a decade or more away. The average age for marriage among American men is now 29. For women it’s 27. This means churches are asking Christian students to spend, on average, 15 years fighting the strongest hormones of their lives. It’s an expectation no previous generation of believers has faced.
But increased emphasis on self-betterment isn’t entirely to blame. As Karen Swallow Prior writes at The Atlantic, our culture’s conception of marriage itself as a “capstone,” rather than a “cornerstone,” has caused many to look at matrimony as unattainable. As one group of sociologists behind a landmark study on the subject wrote, marriage is now “something [young people] do after they have all their ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”
How can church leaders respond to the pressures for young Christians to treat marriage as a cherry on top of academic, vocational, and sexual experience? Is the answer to give up on college and settle for less rewarding careers? How do we exalt marriage as a “good thing,” and a picture of God’s “favor” (Genesis 2:18, Proverbs 18:22), without making it an idol? And how can we offer Christian 20-somethings a means to resist settling for sex without a ceremony?
A few years ago in Christianity Today, Mark Regnerus and three other scholars offered suggestions, but above all emphasized that early marriage runs deeply counter to industrial culture in the 21st century. If we’re serious about confronting this issue, they argued, the church should be prepared to take radical steps toward supporting both young couples and those who find themselves single beyond their 20s but choose to obey God by remaining celibate. Above all, they agree, the church must not remain silent about the consequences of widespread delays in marriage. Understanding the trend and acknowledging the young people who live it is the first step toward a change that desperately needs to be made.