Lovers grab brass ring before gold ring

Hello, young lovers. Wherever you are, you're less likely than ever to tie the knot soon.

Valentine's Day has come and gone, leaving behind countless empty chocolate wrappers and this less-than-romantic fact: The average age for first-time American marriages is at a record high for both sexes.


The statistics, based on 1993 census figures and released last week by the U.S. Department of Commerce, show the median age for first-time newlyweds is at 26.5 for men and 24.5 for women. In 1955, the average ages were the youngest ever: 22.6 for men and 20.2 for women.

When it comes to building lasting relationships, the under-30 crowd appears to have embraced jobs and education instead of one another.


Young adults have several reasons for putting off married life: More women now pursue college, advanced degrees and careers. And many adults, particularly those in blue-collar fields, find it takes longer to build a nest egg.

"Men and women in their 20s realize that they do not have to get married right now," said Jeffrey Ullman, founder of the Great Expectations dating service and author of "Twelve Secrets for Finding Love and Commitment."

"They're not ready to settle down," Mr. Ullman said. "There's no more rush; people don't look down on you."

Child raising also has been put on hold longer as young men and women establish themselves professionally and financially.

It should be noted, however, that the figures don't mean young adults no longer seek close attachments, but simply that they're taking a different view of relationships.

Two-thirds of under-30 adults in the University of Chicago's 1994 sex survey reported having one thing in common with their 1950s counterparts: The men were about 22 when they first moved in with a female mate, and women were about 20 when they first shared living space with a male mate. "It's just that

they're not married," said survey co-author Edward Laumann.

Cohabiting isn't necessarily a good trial run for marriage, however -- as parents have long lectured their kids. In fact, couples who cohabit before marriage are slightly more likely to divorce, Mr. Laumann said. About half the non-married couples reported lasting a year or less living together, he said.


For both sexes, love and family have taken a back seat to work, thanks to economic restructuring.

Take buying a cozy love nest: The median value of a home in 1950 was about $37,000 in 1990 dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Today, that figure is approaching $80,000.

"In the '50s, the economy was booming," said demographer Linda Waite, president of the Population Association of America. "The pay and number of blue-collar jobs were at an all-time high. You could support a family at age 22."

As for those building high-powered careers, all that extra time spent on the road, behind a desk or in school leaves little time for building a foundation for marriage. The wait, however, hardly seems objectionable to most young professionals.

Newlywed Dana Anderson of Chicago, who married last May at age 31, said, "I didn't want to be one of those people who just graduated high school and got married right away. I always felt there was something else I wanted to be doing."

An administrator at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mrs. Anderson devoted considerable time to her education. She completed her bachelor's degree in communications at Texas Tech University in 1984 and her master's degree in counseling and student services at the University of North Texas in 1989.


She moved to Chicago in 1990 "not for a job, but for a single-girl adventure." It was a far cry from the young-adult life of her mother, who married in 1961 at age 22 and was pregnant with Dana a month later.

"I don't think you know who you are until you're a lot older than 22," Mrs. Anderson said. "My mom went right away into the housewife mode, and she felt stifled. She really didn't have a chance to do what she wanted to until she was a lot older."

Dana Anderson said she found herself -- and the man of her dreams too. She met her husband in a young adults group at Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church in January 1993. Two months later, they began dating and by November of that year, they were engaged. That same year, her fiance, Charles, graduated from the Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine with a degree and $100,000 in student debt.

"We're going to have to wait a few years to get financially settled before we have kids," said Charles Anderson, a 28-year-old resident podiatrist at Lincoln West Hospital. "We need to get my practice stable, get my school bills paid off and buy a house before we have kids."

If young people want to wait a while before getting hitched and raising a family, psychologists say, what's crazy about that?

"The first children of the high-divorce generation are now coming of age, and there's an awareness of not wanting to make the same mistakes their parents made," said Philadelphia psychologist Michael Broder, author of "The Art of Living Single."


For all the popular portrayals of 20-somethings as indecisive and confused, Mr. Broder said he thinks the '90s may produce the first generation of young adults who make a habit of using their heads while following their hearts.

"If I owned the world, I'd make the minimum marriage age 30," Mr. Broder said. "You're more mature. I've never read a study that says there's an advantage to getting married younger."