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After Kathryn Linton graduated from Virginia Tech, she was sure of two things: she wanted to pursue the social work career she’d worked hard to be qualified for, and she wanted to marry her boyfriend of six years.
“We couldn’t really imagine going on with the next phase of our life and the other person not being there,” Linton said, explaining why she and her boyfriend got married at what is now considered young — 22 years old.
Linton is part of a small group of millennial women who are distinctly religious and choosing to get married in their early 20s. According to “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” a report released by the National Marriage Project, only 33 percent of 25-year-old women are or have been married. The average marriage age is 29 for men and 27 for women, which is the oldest average ever in the United States.
“Career people have put off marriage for the simple reason that they’re very career focused. And they’re career-focused not because they’re selfish careerists but because the economy demands a certain amount of attention,” said Kay S. Hymowitz, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a main contributor to the “Knot Yet” report.
Despite research showing economic and social advantages of waiting to get married, women like Linton, a nondenominational Christian, say they are choosing to get married young because they see no advantage in waiting when they have a stable relationship with a person they love as they begin making their way in the world.
"Trevor and I had been dating for two years, and I just didn’t feel like I’d ever find someone else I could be as close with," said Brandy Roberts, a millennial who got married at age 19. "He’s my best friend, and it didn’t look like that would change any time soon."
Advantages of waiting
The change in marriage age and the decrease in marriage rates reflect a shift in American culture. According to a report by Pew Research Center, millennials "are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry."
The result is a generation of women focused more on individual goals than on marriage. In fact, according to the "Knot Yet" study, the number of millennial women with children is greater than the number of millennial women who are married, meaning that marriage is less of a priority than having a child, at least for lower-income women.
“It used to be that if you wanted to have a reliable sex life, you had to be married. That’s not true anymore. It used to be that if you wanted to live with a woman or a man, you had to be married. It used to be that if you wanted to have a child, you had to be married. That’s not true anymore,” she explained.
But the data also show that those who put off marriage consider the institution important.
The National Marriage Project also found that “about 80 percent of young-adult men and women continued to rate marriage as an 'important' part of their life plans; almost half of them described it as 'very important.'” Thirty percent of 25-year-old single women want to be married.
“The vast majority of people when you ask them will say, 'yes, they want to get married some day.' They see family as something they want, a top priority,” Hymowitz said.
And research shows that marriage at any age offers distinct advantages. A study from the National Institute of Health found that married couples are likely to live longer, recover from illnesses faster and have better mental health.
Conversely, the National Marriage Project found that "20-somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married 20-somethings.”
According to the "Knot Yet" report, men are less likely to put off marriage, given the choice. Men who get married in their 20s are more likely to have better financial success; early marriage has the opposite effect on women.
"These results are consistent with research that the responsibility ethic associated with marriage makes men, including 20-something men, harder, smarter, and better-paid workers," the report says.
They are religious
So, what distinguishes the minority of female millennials who want to marry at the same age their parents did?
Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and one of the main authors of the Knot Yet report, has found that, while the national marriage age is increasing and the national marriage rate is decreasing, religious communities are continuing to support young, traditional marriage.
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