Ben Domenech frets about, among other things, the rising age of first marriage, attributing it to (or taking it as a symptom of) American decline.  Too much porn, too little valuing family and children, you know the routine as well as I ’cause you caught the matinee.

Julian Sanchez counters with a pair of (sort of weird) graphs showing that the age of marriage and fertility rate tracks educational attainment reasonably well.  One of Sullivan’s readers points out that it’s damned expensive these days to live up to what one’s parents took for granted.

I come bearing both information in the form of pictures of numbers and some questions.  Here is a chart that Eric provided when I wished for it, which  shows the median age at first marriage by gender and race from 1850 to 1990.


Four things strike me.

First, that by and large we are talking about a three to five year swing.   This is not that big, and mostly within historical norms.  The story sounds a lot less scary if described as “recent age at first marriage for American males is very nearly that of the age at first marriage of  white American males in 1900.”  (Hey, maybe those guys were into porn, too…)

Second, our recent cultural memories about What Is Done have got to be shaped by the fact that there’s an dip in the age at first marriage in the decades after WWII.  Probably best not to generalize from the baby boomer-makers or from the massive post-war economic expansion. (Possible book title:  The Fifties Were Anomalous We Need To Get Over It.)

Third, the clear trend seems not to be  in the white guys’ ages, but in the ages of women and black men.

Fourth, whatever the story the averages tell, the more interesting jumpy lines are the dashed lines which represent the median age at first marriage for black men and black women, because the changes appear to be sudden and the line is very steep.  As I am neither a historian nor a sociologist, I do not know what to make of the dashed lines beyond guesses and speculation (readers?  scholars?  your thoughts?) , but it’s worth pointing out that Domenech’s specific worrying reflects only a particular conception of the American family and its history and picket fences.