Married by 30? You’re now in the minority

Wedding bouquet and rings

It’s not so long ago that most people in England and Wales were married in their late teens or twenties. But times have changed and those that are married by the age of thirty are in the minority now. Following the latest ONS marriages data, Nick Stripe examines some of the long-term trends in marriage and relationships.

In the mid 1970’s, when the sun always shone, and I was a very young boy being picked up at the school gates, all the mums (and a few dads) looked very old to me. I suppose they would have done to any child who was still well under 4 feet tall.

Back then, over a quarter (28%) of all women were married by the age of 20, over three quarters (77%) were married by the age of 25, and more than 9 in 10 (91%) were married by the age of 30. The average age of marriage, for a first-time marriage, was 22.8 for women and 25.1 for men. And the first baby usually arrived within the next couple of years.

As I look back now, rapidly approaching 50 years of age, it’s clear to me that I was quite wrong. Half of those mums were probably still in their twenties and definitely still young!

In the 40 years since I rushed out of infant school with my latest painting, at the pinnacle of critical acclaim for my artwork, rates of marriage have declined and the average age at which people get married has climbed ever higher. In 1976, 1 in 15 of all unmarried men (aged 16+) in the country, and 1 in 20 unmarried women, were married that year. By 2016, those figures had dropped to 1 in 46 unmarried men and 1 in 50 unmarried women. The average age of marriage, for a first-time marriage, had risen by 8+ years to 31.5 for women and 33.4 for men.

The proportion of women who had ever married by the age of 30 first dropped below a half in 2002. It now stands at a third (1 in 3 women) – having fallen from more than 9 in 10 in 1976. And the proportion of men who had ever married by the age of 30 first dropped below a half in 1996 and now stands at just under a quarter (1 in 4 men) – a fall from more than 8 in 10 in 1976.

The average age at which women have their first child has shown a similar, but less pronounced increase, over the same time period. Whereas the average age at marriage has increased by over 8 years, the average age of having your first child has increased by just over 4, to 28.8 years for mums.

The sharp eyed among you may have noticed that the average age at which parents have their first child is now about three years younger than the average age that people first get married. This fact points to a dramatic cultural change that has taken place over the last 50 to 60 years. Back in the mid 1950’s, before the “sexual revolution” and the Abortion and Divorce Reform Acts, only about 5% of babies were born to parents who were not married. This is now the case for just under half (48%) of all new-borns.

By the mid 1990’s, art was no longer my thing and I too was about to get married, aged 25, a relatively young bridegroom for the time. One or two older members of my extended family, I later found out, were disappointed that I had previously been “living in sin” with my partner. But by then, around two thirds of couples getting married already had the same address and had previously been cohabiting.  That older generation had grown up in different times. By 2016, almost 9 in 10 couples (88%) were cohabiting before marriage.

The major move towards living together before marriage may well help to explain many of the relationship trends we see today. Marriage rates have more than halved since their high-water mark in the 1960s and 1970s, with a corresponding increase in the average age at which people get married. We might also consider the more recent phenomenon of decreasing divorce rates in the same light. Couples are now overwhelmingly likely to be “trying before buying”, as my current partner and I have been doing, within our wonderful blended family, for the last 15 years.

Nick Stripe, Head of Life Events at the ONS.