Thursday, March 03, 2011

Strapping young lads

This was buried (and poorly articulated, alas) in a recent post, but I will put it front and center: was there ever a time, within Western modernity, other than (what I understand of) the 1950s, outside of any extreme-for-its-time religious sect, when 20-something men were expected to be married with kids? I'm not asking whether men at that age were ever settled down, or whether any of the major religions technically gives its OK to the kind of sex had by bachelors. My question is whether it was ever expected of men, whether social tsk-tskers (again, religious authorities, who tend to aim beyond what's really expected, aside) were aghast that a 35-year-old man might only now be thinking of settling down, a past of premarital exploits behind him.

I ask this because today's secular-ish moralists seem amazed at how immature 20-something men are, how useless they are to 20-something women. I'm wondering whether there was ever a time (see caveats above) when 20-something men were expected to be of use to settling-down-oriented 20-something women. Wasn't this considered 30-and-up men's responsibility?

Meanwhile, if anything - and forgive me the same imprecision re: time and place as those I'm responding to - it could be that what's new is that 20-something women are expected to be interested in 20-something men. Whereas once, a 21-year-old would be matched with a 40-year-old, her presumed partners are now 21-year-old men. This, and not the maturity of 20-something men, may be the difference we're seeing.

The responsibility for this shift - assuming there's been a shift, and perhaps when I'm less preoccupied by far more precise details of 19th C marriage patterns I'll look into this in more detail -  would seemingly lie in everything from reliable birth control (not every partner or even relationship needs to be about supporting children) to the fact that a great number of activities (college student, lawyer) are not divided along gender lines. Women have far more choice than in the past about who to pick or pursue, and for what kind of relationship. And - shock of shocks - despite refrains about graying men being 'distinguished', 20-something women find 20-something men attractive. In other words, it's not that 20-something women are and always have been more mature than 20-something men. It's that it's always been more appealing to choose who to be with and when and under what circumstances, and women now have the option of doing what men always have. (If it weren't for declining fertility with age, there'd be no compelling reason for women to want to settle down at any particular point. But fertility doesn't stop at 22...) Anyway, if what 20-something women wanted was to snag men ready to settle down, they'd be after older men, who would likely oblige. That they're not suggests that settling down is not their priority. Which is why this bit of Mark "Remember Him?" Regnerus's Slate piece was so baffling:

Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market's realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend's hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn't oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants. Meanwhile, Julia, a 21-year-old from Arizona who's been in a sexual relationship for two years, is frustrated by her boyfriend's wish to "enjoy the moment and not worry about the future." Michelle, a 20-year-old from Colorado, said she is in the same boat: "I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who said that, um, he didn't know if he was ever going to get married because, he said, there's always going to be someone better."
Perhaps there are regional particularities here that I'm missing, but isn't it usual for traditional-age college students of both sexes to assume that the relationship they happen to be in is not with their future spouse? Isn't it possible that "Jill" happens to be more interested in her current boyfriend than vice versa, and that this - rather than something gender-specific - is the issue, and that Jill's optimal scenario if the boy were more interested would be, I don't know, a change in Facebook status to "In a Relationship," not anything more official? (And, things being subjective, how exactly can Regnerus know how appealing Jill would be in some hypothetical situation other than the one she's in? Is he qualified not only to assess Young People Today, but also their objective hotness?) Isn't it for the best that 20-year-olds of both sexes who are unsure about their current partners make that known and move on, rather than forcing a commitment with the first person with whom there's even slightly sustained mutual attraction? And - this one for "Michelle" - are we really supposed to take seriously the declaration of a 20-year-old's ex-boyfriend, who could well have been 17 when saying this, that he's not sure he'll ever want to marry?

I have said before and will say again that I think if two 20-year-olds have found each other and wish to look no further - and remember, at 20 someone could already have been in a few other serious relationships - then there shouldn't be pressure on them to see what else is out there. So if that's what's happening, if these young men have been told by society to leave perfectly happy relationships - and I suspect that is what happens some of the time, with male and female dumpers - that's a problem. Regnerus, however, implies that these boyfriends and ex-boyfriends really are ambivalent, really are ready to move on. In which case, they - and their female equivalents - should reject their current partners, even if, horror of horrors, it prevents some dumpees from marrying their college sweethearts. At any rate, this is the problem with "20s" as a concept, the conflation of ages at which settling down makes sense for many, and at which it makes sense for very, very few.

12 comments:

Jeff said...

Whereas once, a 21-year-old would be matched with a 40-year-old

Where and when was this? I didn't see such a statement in the links above.

(and BTW I'm kinda hoping the answer is Seattle, year 2011)

Phoebe said...

The moralists I link to don't say anything about these kinds of pairings, which is my point - they act as though in the past, social pressure kept men marrying and having kids at 25. As is the heh-heh bit about older men today surely not minding such a scenario - if young women today were interested, this would be happening, and no one would care if male 20-somethings played video games.

Britta said...

You should look at the age of first marriage article on wikipedia, it has the average age at first marriage for many countries around the world. I think the youngest average age for men is 22, which is in Nepal (women were 18.8). I think the highest is 35.1, in Sweden (women were 32.5). Northern Europe and East Asia are the highest in general, but the world is fairly compressed into the range of the 20s, and the US is not even really at the top end, and lower than pretty much all other industrialized countries.

Interestingly, Bangladesh is 28.9 for men and 18.1 for women, and other less industrial/fairly traditional countries also have largish gaps for men and women, which supports Phoebe's point.

Very few countries though have women who marry on average in their teens (just Chad, Niger, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and Nepal). Only in Scandinavia and Ireland do women marry on average after age 30.

Withywindle said...

I would say that American ages of marriage were often much lower than in Europe, precisely because of the frontier, easily available land, etc. This varied, but I think New England in 1680 or Kentucky in 1810 were likely to see people married about as young as in America in the 1950s. America in the 1950s may be exceptional in the broad history of Western Civilization, but 1950s America is much closer to the norm of America since 1620. And that context and comparison may matter more.

Flavia said...

Withy may be right about the difference between America and Europe. But my reading (both of the "actual research" and the "desultory and vaguely remembered" sort) supports your contention.

The average age for marriage in seventeenth-century England was about 27 for men and 25 for women, but it wasn't at all uncommon for men in the middle classes not to be married until their 30s; usually, it took a while for a man to be able to support a family (whether that meant completing an apprenticeship, buying land, or whatever).

The nobility did tend to marry younger, because they didn't have the same economic pressures. I'd think that the same would have been true in both colonial and early republican America, what with indentured servitude, more men immigrating than women, etc. Even the availability of cheap land out west doesn't mean that a young couple married and went out there together--I'm a westerner, and I seem to recall reading a lot of books as a kid about frontier towns full of men. Some of them may already have had families back east, but more commonly they seemed to be sending back home for eligible brides only once they'd set up a homestead or business, or struck gold.

As I say, that's not my field. But Stephanie Coontz's book probably has reliable data.

Miss Self-Important said...

Aristotle recommends that women marry at 18 and men at 37. How's that for specificity? I was going to review Hymowitz's book--maybe I should offer that as a recommendation to frustrated twentysomething women?

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, link fail. Well, you can look up "it is fitting for women to unite in marriage" and get to the passage.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Farming migrations differ from mining towns. I did say "Kentucky in 1810," not "Arizona in 1880."

Phoebe: A general note: men and women generally married late, or not at all, because they were too poor to do otherwise, not because they were considered too feckless to marry. (Yes, there's a "Bachelors' Hall" trope in the culture a long time back, but I have a strong sense that, practically, it was inability to marry, not disinclination, that mattered most.) This is distinct from the critique of the modern day, of people (men) whose character is too boyish to sustain marriage.

Flavia said...

Withy: sure. But what about all those hired hands, laborers, and (further west, and later) cowboys? The frontier seems always to have been predominantly male-populated, whether we're talking about trappers or miners or those involved in livestock and agriculture. That's not to say that there weren't European-descended women and children in the early colonies or on the frontier; of course there were. And wives would have been an actual asset to small-time farmers. But the disproportionate numbers of men would have to drive up the average age of marriage nevertheless.

I agree with your second point, however--that male marital ineligibility in earlier generations seems to have been primarily economic.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: I was a little brusque in my earlier comment; please forgive. Your general point makes sense; statistics needed! For Kentucky in 1810 though: betcha some largish number of the unmarried young men were slaves, and that this meant that white marriage ages became relatively lower.

Flavia said...

Withy: no worries. But yes: we should find us some actual facts & figures, rather than speculating about what seems likely to be true.

Phoebe said...

First attempts to reply got garbled - fantastic Internet in these parts! Anyway...

What interests me is whether moralists way back when had their metaphorical panties in a twist over the marriageability of 20-something young men, of whether these men were available for same-age female partners. The question of when people really first married, first had kids, is partially relevant - moralists were likely to responding to some on-the-ground facts, although the relationship is usually quite skewed - but not central. Moralists might well have only objected to singledom in 20-something women and 40-something men, for example, or might have not phrased the question in terms of what men were up to. However, I do think the new ideal, if not reality (in that it was a reality at various points in the past as well), of marrying a peer has probably had some impact here.