British marriage, zoomed out

Hi, Rose here. I write for Datawrapper’s blog, and part of my job is to edit the Weekly Chart column. Today, I’m continuing our discussion of historical trends in marriage.

In the previous Weekly Chart, Elliot brought the data to confirm a commonsense impression: people these days are waiting later than their parents and grandparents did to get married and have children. The average age of a newlywed in the U.K. is 30.6 for women and 32.1 for men — about five years older than they would have been 1995, and nine years older than in 1964.

When we’re looking back in history, three generations is about as far as common sense can usually go. Those are the people whose lives we know firsthand. Many of us might have a general impression that women, especially, married young in the past, but we don’t actually have any 19th century friends or family to compare that impression against. Reading last week’s post, I was curious to see the older data that could fill in that gap.

This generation is marrying remarkably late — but what wasn't visible before is that their grandparents married remarkably early. People in the mid-to-late 1960s were jumping into marriage and parenthood at record speed, and the drop in brides’ ages since the ‘30s had been almost as fast as their subsequent rebound. The difference is that that rebound, instead of leveling off at the prewar baseline, never ended. We’re still in it.

For comparison, I tracked down some (much less complete) data on marriage age in the U.S. as well. Americans also married youngest in the mid 20th century:

Elliot pointed out last week that later marriages over the past 20 years have gone hand in hand with later homeownership. It’s easy to see how that connection runs in both directions — a sign of how tightly entwined cultural and economic factors are in this part of life. And of course, the economics of marriage have changed over time.

Today, at least in the U.S., rural areas are associated with earlier marriage. One reason might be the greater economic opportunities for women in cities, since the desire to launch a career is a main reason for putting off marriage and children. But in 19th century Britain, the opposite was true: women in big cities married younger, and the latest-marrying areas were in rural parts of Scotland and Wales. That stayed true even as the overall age of marriage rose over these decades. It's yet another reminder of how little we can take for granted about the past!

Thanks for reading this Weekly Chart! Come back next Thursday for a post from our developer Ivan.