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Family Formation: Age at first marriage
Changes over time
Marriage registration data shows that the median age at first marriage declined through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and then increased again through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
In 1940 the median age at first marriage was 26.5 for bridegrooms and 23.7 for brides. By 1974 this had fallen to 23.3 for bridegrooms and 20.9 for brides. This pattern of steady decline reflected the many changes in Australian society that occurred through the post-war years.
During World War II there was a short boom in marriage rates (see Australian Social Trends 1995, Trends in marriage and divorce). These additional marriages usually occurred at a younger age than was common at the time: a phenomenon assumed at the time to be a temporary change in marriage patterns.2
During the post-war period of the late 1940s and 1950s there was a climate of reconstruction and a return to a 'normal' way of life in Australia, as in other countries affected by the war. This extended to family formation, and couples tended to marry and start families at an early age.
The post-war boom in the Australian economy also meant that couples could afford to marry early. Good employment prospects for men provided economic security and reduced the need to delay marriage until a couple could afford to become established.2
Increasing levels of control over fertility with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961 helped to provide young people with more lifestyle choices. The age of marriage continued to decline through the 1960s and early 1970s.
Meanwhile, foundations were being laid for a reassessment of traditional roles, leading to extensive social change. The rising strength of the women's movement meant that increasing numbers of young women were participating in post-compulsory education and work, options that had not been available to their mothers. The extra time it took to achieve these goals was probably a major factor leading to the postponement of marriage. Other factors influencing the rise in age at first marriage during the late 1970s included the increased availability of abortion and rising unemployment levels.1
The decline in age at first marriage was finally arrested in 1974. The median age of first marriage of bridegrooms and brides started to increase and has continued to increase steadily to 27.3 for bridegrooms and 25.3 for brides in 1995.
As well as postponing marriage, couples were reappraising the importance and relevance of marriage during the 1970s. This resulted from the reduced influence of religion on young Australians, rising divorce rates that undermined the idealism of marriage, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that helped to separate sexuality from marriage1. In more recent years, the number of couples who chose to postpone or reject the tradition of marriage in favour of a de facto relationship has risen. By 1992, more than half (56%) of all couples who married in that year had cohabited before their current marriage, compared to 16% in 19753.
The degree to which de facto partnering has influenced the change in age at first marriage is difficult to determine. It has been suggested that around half of the retreat from formal marriage since the mid 1980s might be attributed to de facto partnering. However, it is not simply the case that people were marrying later because they were cohabiting as an alternative to marriage: people were also avoiding unions of either type more than they previously had done4.
Marriage registrations no longer reliably reflect the partnering patterns of couples. Neither is there a regular and detailed source of information on the formation of de facto partnerships to augment marriage registration information.
MEDIAN AGE OF BRIDEGROOMS AND BRIDES AT FIRST MARRIAGE
Source: Marriages and Divorces, Australia (cat. no. 3310.0 and unpublished data).
As well as the increase in the age at first marriage over the last 20 years or so, there has also been a widening of the range of ages of bridegrooms and brides at first marriage.
In 1974, 35% of bridegrooms and 39% of brides marrying for the first time were aged within one year of their medians. By 1995 each of these proportions had fallen by 10 percentage points.
AGE DISTRIBUTION OF BRIDEGROOMS AND BRIDES AT FIRST MARRIAGE, 1974 AND 1995
Source: Marriages and Divorces, Australia (Cat. no. 3310.0); and Marriages, Australia (Cat. no. 3306.0).
Men generally marry younger women. However, the proportion of first marriages in which the man was younger has increased between 1974 and 1995. This may have been a further effect of the relaxation of pressures to conform to previous patterns.
In 1995, about two thirds of first marriages involved a bridegroom marrying a younger bride, and in 14% they were the same age. For the remaining 20% of first marriages, the bride was older. By comparison, in 1974 only 11% of first marriages involved a bridegroom marrying an older bride.
However, the age gap between bridegroom and bride was generally smaller when the bridegroom was younger than the bride. In 1995, 15% of first marriages where the bridegroom was younger than the bride involved an age difference greater than four years. In comparison, 31% of first marriages in which the bridegroom was older than the bride involved an age difference greater than four years.
DISTRIBUTION OF THE DIFFERENCE IN AGE BETWEEN COUPLES AT FIRST MARRIAGE(a), 1974 AND 1995
Bridegroom younger than bride Bridegroom older than bride
(a) Based on couples in which both bridegroom and bride were marrying for the first time.
Source: Marriages and Divorces (unpublished data).
1 Carmichael, G. 'Consensual partnering in the more developed countries', Journal of the Australian Population Association, Volume 12, No. 1, May 1995.
2 Carmichael, G. 1988, With This Ring: First Marriage Patterns, Trends and Prospects in Australia, Department of Demography, Australian National University and The Australian Institute of Family Studies, Canberra.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1994, Focus on Families: Demographics and Family Formation, cat. no. 4420.0, ABS, Canberra.
4 Carmichael, G. 'A Cohort Analysis of Marriage and Informal Cohabitation among Australian Men', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, Volume 27, No. 1, March 1990.