I spent Easter at my aunt's house, commingling with friends and family (and a disturbingly tiny Mini Yorkshire Terrier), just chatting and catching up. My cousin happened to mention that he would soon be buying a tuxedo for one of three weddings he's in this summer - and something like the sixth or seventh wedding he'll have attended in the last year or so! It suddenly occurred to me that although "wedding season" is coming up, I myself have nary a wedding to attend. I'm about to turn 25; isn't this traditionally the time when all my friends should be marrying up? My cousin, on the other hand, is nearing 30 and he's practically drowning in formal wear.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution showed that men and women are getting married later in life than ever before; on average, women around 27 and men around 29. This is in drastic contrast to most of our parents - let alone our grandparents - many of whom got married before they could even take a legal drink at their own weddings.
But why the shift? Perhaps it's simply how younger people look at marriage: it's no longer necessarily the key to getting your adult life started on the right foot, but more often the cherry on top. Getting married later in life is certainly beneficial for women: college-educated women who marry after the age of 30 make $18,152 more annually than their equally educated counterparts who marry before age 20. Of course, this could be a matter of self selection: women who are more career-oriented might purposely choose not to marry until they have all their other ducks in a row. I can say anecdotally that most of my friends are more concerned with getting their careers and finances in order than they are about getting rings on their fingers. It's how we were raised. Few women are comfortable feeling beholden to a husband anymore.
Then there's the fact that what used to be called "living in sin" is now just known as "cohabitating"; it's not nearly the scandal-inducing move it was for past generations. So while living together can be financially beneficial to a couple, that pesky little issue of a marriage certificate is no longer a requirement (for some). Once again, a couple is often more comfortable living together and saving up for the dream wedding, rather than doing it the other way around. Tradition is a thing of the past, and instead of gift registries to fill a kitchen that's already been stocked from years of cohabitation, many couples are making honeymoon registries.
But before you clutch your pearls, consider this: studies show that as the average age of marriage goes up, the divorce rate steadily goes down. There must be something positive in all that premarital sinning.
Finally, "housewife" is used as a pejorative these days as often as not, whereas the term "childless" has been traded in for the more positive (though also more exclusionary) "child-free." Emphasis on free: adults seem to be savoring their freedom for as long as possible, and working harder to set up a foundation to provide for that freedom. The sentiment seems to be: why be bogged down with a spouse and kids, when you can "have it all" by first getting it all on your own?
It's a sentiment that I don't disagree with.
Perhaps what goes around comes around.
Irish-Catholic families are often depicted as enormous clans, the pride of their birth-control-averse Church. And there is truth to the image. Joanne and I watched "My Left Foot" last night. Irish author Christie Brown's parents had 22 children, 13 of whom survived. But that's not the whole picture.
In 19th century rural Ireland, where tough times were the norm even when the potato flourished, many a son and daughter never married. At least one girl was expected to remain a spinster who took care of her aging parents. Aging, unmarried uncles helped their married sibs on the small, subsistence level farms.
Economic reality rules again in the 21st century America. No generation ever had it easier than mine. Yes, the Vietnam War took 50,000 American lives. It also ensured prosperity in the Sixties and early Seventies. I well remember one acquaintance in Nesquehoning confiding to me that he hoped the war would never end, because he had never before had so much overtime work. Many more left the same sentiment unspoken.
When I came out of college with a garden-variety liberal arts degree, I wasn't worried. We all found jobs, where we developed our practical skill sets. Student loan obligations were usually low and could be deferred or forgiven if you taught in a public school, served in the military, went on for an advanced degree, or signed up with the Peace Corps. The Hippies could be Hippies because it was just so darn easy to get by. I'll repeat what I have said many times before: the second half of the 20th in the U.S. of A. will be recalled as a Golden Age.
While my generation competed for jobs among ourselves, Claire's generation is competing with counterparts in India, China, Europe and the rest of the world. With twice the population of 40 years ago, our planet groans with each new birth. And, I am absolutely convinced, high-tech is taking away more jobs than it is creating.
The solution for young Americans today, I believe, includes getting well grounded in their careers before they march to the alter, having only one or two kids after they tie the knot, and keeping financial obligations at a level that allows them to make nimble career shifts when the shifting sands in the global labor bizarre demand.