We've all noticed the current trend for young people to marry later and later, deferring the day until various conditions are met. Education completed, career established, the field played sufficiently, etc. , as Mark Regnerus, author and sociology professor, noted recently in his Washington Post Article,
Convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.
Too bad real life isn't like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you're fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. "Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth," added Tennyson to his lines about springtime and love.
I realize that marrying early means that you engage in a shorter search. In the age of online dating personality algorithms and matches, Americans have become well acquainted with the cultural (and commercial) notion that melding marriage with science will somehow assure a good fit. But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing. I've met 18-year-olds who can handle it and 45-year-olds who can't.
Today, there's an even more compelling argument against delayed marriage: the economic benefits of pooling resources. My wife and I married at 22 with nothing to our name but a pair of degrees and some dreams. We enjoy recounting those days of austerity, and we're still fiscal conservatives because of it, better poised to weather the current crisis than many, because marriage is an unbelievably efficient arrangement and the best wealth-creating institution there is. Married people earn more, save more and build more wealth compared with people who are single or cohabiting. (Say what you will about the benefits of cohabitation, it's a categorically less stable arrangement, far more prone to division than marriage.) We can combine incomes while reducing expenses such as food, child care, electricity, gas and water usage. Marriage may be bourgeois, but it's also the greenest of all social structures. Michigan State ecologists estimate that the extra households created by divorce cost the nation 73 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and more than 600 billion gallons of water in a year. That's a mighty big carbon footprint created in the name of solitude. Marriage may not make you rich -- that's not its purpose -- but a biblical proverb reveals this nifty side effect: "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work."
So while many young Americans mark their days in the usual ways -- by hitting the clubs, incessantly checking Facebook, Twittering their latest love interest and obsessing about their poor job prospects or how to get into graduate school -- my applause goes out to those among them who've figured out that the proverb was right. One of those is Jennifer, a 23-year-old former student of mine. She's getting married this fall. It wasn't religion that made her do it. It wasn't fear of being alone. It was simply affection. She met Jake while still in college and decided that there was no point in barhopping through her 20s. Her friends balked. She stood firm. Now they're bridesmaids.
There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of negativity attached to an earlier marriage. Young people face both parental and peer pressure discouraging the idea, while extolling the supposed benefits of waiting. But, it seems the studies and surveys are once again confirming the wisdom of Scripture. The older we get, the more set in mind, opinions and our own ways of doing things. Compromise may prove more difficult. Getting started together at a younger age, working in tandem, and with the energy of youth, can help achieve that goal of unity. It takes commitment of course, and the decision to love. No luck involved here.