snapshotJust about every time a new Census Report comes out, it shows that the age at which Americans first marry – among those who do marry – has reached a new record high. In 2013, the age for men reached 29 for the first time ever. For women, it was 26.6.

I’m interested in the age at which Americans first marry because the increase in that number is one of many factors contributing to the ever-growing number of Americans who are single. For others, though, it is a source of angst. Omigosh, the older generations are exclaiming, the millennials are just never going to grow up! Omigosh, the millennials who want to marry are saying as they berate themselves, am I ever going to make it into the Married Couples Club? (The single-at-heart are blissfully free of such concerns.)

Americans were as young as they have ever been as newlyweds in 1956 when men married at 22.5 and women at 20.1. Those ages are young not just in comparison to recent decades, but even in comparison to decades before 1956. In fact, in 1890, the age at which men first married was 26.1 (and 22 for women).

Contemporary Americans think that there is something special about the today’s young adults and how long they are taking to reach conventional milestones such as marriage, parenting, and landing a decent, secure job. But as Jon Grinspan pointed out in the New York Times, Americans were fretting about how “stuck” the young adults seemed to be in the 19th century, too.

Here’s what was truly different about marrying late in the 1800s, and which gives it a whole different meaning, psychologically, than it should have now: In the 19th century, the expected life span was under 50 years! So someone who married at age 26 had already lived more than half of their life.

It is entirely different now. Our life spans have stretched. As Jonathan Vesper noted in a Census Bureau blog, “Today, men can expect to live to 76, yet they marry at 29, about one third of the way through their lifetime.”

I like Grinspan’s perspective:

“Today’s young adults are constantly rebuked for not following the life cycle popular in 1960. But a quick look at earlier eras shows just how unusual mid-20th-century young people were. A society in which people married out of high school and held the same job for 50 years is the historical outlier.” [In the 19th century, those] “who did best tended to accept change, not to berate themselves for breaking with tradition. Young adults might do the same today.”

[Note: Thanks to Natalya Anfilofyeva for the heads-up about the Census Bureau blog post.]

Vintage wedding photo available from Shutterstock.