After several years of interruption I’m finally able to pull never married data by race and age again via the U.S. Census CPS data tool. This first chart uses three year averages to estimate the beginning, middle, and ending years in order to get the sample sizes up since it looks at specific ages instead of five year cohorts:
The chart above is for all races. As I’ve done in the past, I also broke it out just for White Non Hispanic women to minimize the impact that immigration and demographic changes might be having:
For both charts it is clear that nearly all women have married by age 45. This reconfirms two things:
- There will always be thirsty men willing to marry even the staunchest holdout, even though we are seeing what may be a small but growing number of men electing not to marry.
- Women still see marriage as an indispensable part of having it all, despite all of the talk about women no longer feeling the need to gain the status of wife. To understand how deep this need is, consider just how hard these women had to settle after assuring themselves for decades that they could do better. Choosing last sucks, and it sucks all the more if the reason you chose last is you were sure you could do better than the ever shrinking pool. These women didn’t get any younger, prettier, more fertile, or less entitled as they entered middle age. Their options didn’t get better as their 40th and 45th birthdays approached, they got much worse. What changed is the women decided to settle, and settle hard.
At the same time we can see that never married rates continue to increase dramatically for women under 40. This breakdown by age is a far clearer picture than the much simpler median age of first marriage. Ever increasing numbers of women are turning 35 without having married. In 2004 roughly 12% of 35 year old White women had never married, but by 2016 this had increased to an incredible 18%! At the same time, the continued delay of marriage in the younger age brackets means that the 35 year old husband hunters will be competing with a glut of never married younger women. In 2004 roughly 22% of 30 year old White women had never married. By 2016 this had jumped up to 35%!
The thing to keep in mind as you look at all of the charts on this post is that women postponing marriage during their twenties is seen as empowerment. But the goal isn’t to wait forever. Around age 30 a never married woman starts to panic. If she still isn’t married by 35 her panic intensifies. This continues until the panic is so great nearly all of them find a willing man–any willing man–and march him down the aisle.
The risks of this plan should be obvious. As ever increasing numbers of women make it into the panic zone, the potential for catastrophe increases. Delayed marriage relies on men as a group responding as desired to an ultimatum. You’ll marry her when she tires of having sex with other men, take it or leave it! But as more and more women delay marriage past the age where the SMP power position has shifted from women to men, this strategy becomes ever more tenuous. The greatest risk here is a mass panic by 30 something never married women. If 30 something women flip from greed to fear, men in their 30s and 40s could flip from fear to greed. If men were to respond by merely deciding to delay marriage by 2-3 years (on average) and play the field a bit longer, this would push large numbers of 30 something women from the starts-to-panic zone to the full-fledged-settling zone. If a small number of men at the same time decide to adopt Marcos’ con, the panic would be further magnified. What would happen after that is more difficult to predict. We have spent decades undermining the foundations of marriage. So far, nearly all White men and women still marry, and it isn’t clear what (if anything) we could do to change that. But we are collectively doing our best to exhaust men’s seemingly inexhaustible good will and find out where this limit is, the point at which marriage as an institution loses it’s cachet. As Larry Kummer brilliantly observes we are like monkeys in the nuclear power plant control room, furiously spinning the knobs and pushing the buttons.
In addition to the two charts above I’ve also updated the White Non Hispanic never married charts by cohort that I’ve shared in the past. All of the following charts show the same data, but the latter views strip out the younger age brackets to zoom in on the older brackets in greater detail:
Note that the spectacular jump we saw in 2014 for the 35-39 age bracket appears to have been statistical noise. However, it is clear that we are witnessing a steady increase in never married 35-39 year old White women, moving from 11% in 1999 to roughly 17% in 2017: