A History of Single Life

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History of Single Life

My brother and his girlfriend live in Buffalo. They’ve been together for a few years, they’re just coming up on their thirtieth birthdays and own their own home. They also — despite her mother’s constant reminders about her own six-month courtship, back when rocks were soft, and dirt hadn’t been invented yet — have no immediate plans to get married.

Though delaying the Big Day might be considered unusual in Buffalo, parents eager for grandchildren are just as familiar to my New York City friends. But those of us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s are in no rush to tie the knot. Over the last six decades, the median age at first marriage has risen to twenty-seven for men and twenty-six for women, from the all-time low of twenty-three for men and twenty for women in 1950.

In a previous column, I pointed out that this is a hardly a new phenomenon; in 1890, the average age at first marriage was twenty-six for men; for women, it was twenty-two. The difference between 1890 and today, of course, is that it’s not just men delaying marriage. Middle-class mores have long required waiting to marry until the onset of financial stability. (Prosperity is, of course, relative: Even the poorest people in America do better than 90% of the Earth’s population, but we feel deprived if we don’t have Wiis and iPods.) In fact, you could see the sexual revolution as a movement of post-war kids who were unwilling to put off sex until they got hitched.

But late marriage is not a product of the industrial age. In fact, it’s been a surprisingly standard practice for centuries — some

The pressure to make money before marriage drives economies forward.

scholars, such as Jeremy Goldberg of York University, argue that it’s been common since the Middle Ages. It’s so distinctive that it even has its own name: "the northwestern European marriage pattern." First described by John Hajnal back in the ’60s, the pattern is characterized by late age of marriage, a relatively high proportion of people never marrying, (unmarried) women working outside the home, and people choosing their own partners.

The theory is that because married couples move out to start their own households, people generally put off marriage until they’ve accumulated enough capital to start up housekeeping. Thus, medieval village girls would work as servants in town to earn their own dowries, and eighteenth-century journeymen would postpone marriage until they’d been promoted to master — all the way down to today, when we cubicle serfs put off buying a ring until after that next big promotion. My brother, for instance, is in chiropractic school and in no hurry to make wedding plans until he graduates. Nor am I, until I get my doctorate and find a tenure-track job somewhere (which means I’m probably looking at lifelong celibacy).

It seems obvious that people won’t get married until they’re able to afford it, but some scholars think that decision accounts for some of the most essential characteristics of our civilization. If you marry late, you’ll have fewer children, and concentrate more resources on each child. The pressure to make money before marriage tends to drive economies forward. And perhaps most importantly, older people’s autonomy in choosing their partners, and tendency to choose partners of the same age, helped to birth the whole idea of companionate marriage — i.e. "love." Arguably, late marriage also extended that irresponsible age when you’re supposed to be looking for a mate — thus our idea of single life.

The marriage pattern tends to break down in times of relative abundance.

Conversely, in southern Europe, in Spain and Italy, women have been kept closer to home. We can’t blame the Church for the difference between north and south — Billy Joel may sing that "Catholic girls start much too late," but in Ireland, the pattern of delayed nuptuals and high celibacy mirrors Protestant England. (Apologies to those with a thing for plaid skirts and knee socks.) Economic causes are more relevant. In Italy, for instance, relatively few families owned their own land, and most eked out a living in exploitative sharecropping arrangements — which meant that kids had to be kept on the farm to help with the family business. Also, women’s sexual purity was part of family honor; parents wanted their daughters to marry early and move in with their husbands’ families. (This has reversed in recent years; the Italian birth rate is now the second lowest in the Western world.)

So, if this pattern holds true across Western culture, why is my brother’s non-mother-in-law so hung up on his tying the knot with her daughter? Well, it seems the marriage pattern tends to break down in times of relative abundance — as in colonial America, when you could get all the land you wanted after the Indians had been killed, or after the Black Death, when you could get all the land you wanted after your neighbors had been killed, or in the 1950s, when you could get all the suburban tract houses you wanted after the Nazis had been killed.

Buffalo’s particular regional culture, as with much of the Midwest, has thus been affected by features of the post-war economy, such as cheap housing and manufacturing jobs that were abundant until the rust-belt crash of the ’70s. Getting a job and buying a house was comparatively simple, and a lot of people rushed into marriage barely out of their teens. Today, however, the Buffalo economy has slowed down, and, as a result, marriage age is creeping back up to historical norms. My brother’s un-mother-in-law’s impatience is an atavism of the brief period of time when people could marry young. If we take the long view, we see that actually, marrying young was the anomaly, and that, historically speaking, waiting has always been more common — which should be some comfort to all those happily single Bills fans out there.  

Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.
©2007 Ken Mondschein and