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We Shouldn't Be Surprised By Couples Delaying Marriage

26/07/2013 17:29 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 10:12 BST
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Teenage sweethearts who mate for life are becoming extinct, or so says a new study.

Apparently a third of couples in their sixties are still with the person they first fell for. But for those in their forties and fifties, it's only 14%. The research by The Co-operative also says that have more partners and are having children later than their grandparents did.

Commentators have been quick to jump on this as more evidence of our restless commitment adverse culture or the demise of the nuclear family. But is it any wonder that people of marrying age today are apprehensive? Our social and economic landscape paints a very different picture than it did for the generation with which they are being compared with. Generation X and Y no longer have the incentives to pair up.

Every area of modern life is geared towards autonomy. In the Western world we are encouraged to champion our individuality. It's cool to dress differently and to self-style our interests. At school teenagers are given personality profiling questionnaires to suggest career options 'suitable for them'. Years ago they would be steered towards whatever happened to be the traditional family trade. Compare this to Japan, where I have lived and worked, which harbours a sense of group identity. Being quirky is frowned upon and anyone who goes abroad to study often faces stigma when they return for no longer 'being Japanese'.

The Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has identified a new stage of young adult life which he calls The Age of Independence. Since the 1960's, middle-class 20 and 30-somethings have had the opportunity to live a 'second adolescence' - going to college or traveling - before settling down. This experience, he says, was alien to their grandparents and has been the root of many social changes. I relate. Having reached the age of 36, mostly forging my own path through life, it's hard to stomach the idea that someone may wade in and have a say in all my decisions.

Secondly, this study and many other 'marriage trend reports' like it rests on the assumption that we all need to find our true love to survive and be content - a fairytale myth which has never been more anachronistic.

Modern lifestyles afford us the means to live alone. Up until the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, this wasn't possible. Few things could be bought ready for use. Meat needed to be skinned, fabrics had to be sewn, bread had to be made from scratch and even the flour needed sieving to remove bugs. Up until 50 years ago social stigma would be a deterrent for any aspiring solo dwellers. Women particularly needed a husband because there wasn't much in the way of an income if she didn't. Even when women started entering the workforce in the 70s, she could be openly sacked for getting pregnant or for losing her looks. In some states of America, as late as the 70s, archaic laws granting all property rights to men were still in place, and so women couldn't take out a loan or start a business without her husband's consent.

Socially too, it is now possible to remain single or to pursue a non-conventional relationship. David Cameron's government attempts to incentivise marriage with a married couple's tax break (£150 a year, whoopee!). And yes, going on holiday as a couple does rid the single occupancy supplements, but in the grand scheme of things there is no longer much of a financial incentive to nest down with our first loves.

Thirdly, we are living longer, which makes one's eternal vows a lot more eternal if we marry our childhood sweetheart.

Finally, loneliness is far less of a threat for those who choose to stay solo than it once was. What with social networking and dating sites we can find and integrate with niche communities at the click of a mouse. When I tell people I'm in no rush to find a husband, they look aghast: "What will you do when you're old?!" Haven't they heard of septuagenarian dating apps?! In fact, the largest growing demographic for online dating sites is that of the over 50's as the numbers of never-marrieds and no-longer marrieds rise.

If I've gone off sex and dating by that age, as the Daily Mail warned this week is what happens to over-60s females, then hopefully Facebook will allow me to find a local Bridge club. Or I'll join an asexual dating site. There are plenty of those around too. Such social accessibility is a luxury that the generation who married their teenage sweethearts did not have.

The most telling thing about this study is not the results but the terms such as 'delaying marriage' and 'settling down'. The implication that finding our ultimate soul mate is still our main purpose and any life we lead prior to that is somehow 'unsettled'. I wonder whether in another 50 years, as our society becomes even more autonomous, whether such surveys will even be relevant.

Helen Croydon's second book Stuff the Fairytale published by John Blake publishing.