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Ross Greenwood
Smarter Writer

Ross Greenwood is the Nine Network's business and finance editor and hosts Money News on 2GB

Ross Greenwood
Smarter Writer

Ross Greenwood is the Nine Network's business and finance editor and hosts Money News on 2GB

Delaying getting married can have a surprising effect on your income, as Ross Greenwood discovers.

The topics of love and marriage seem to come together naturally. But if you want to start a really interesting discussion, then bring up the subject of marriage and money.

An American study has found that the age you marry can have a big impact on how much you earn, to the tune of thousands of dollars a year! But, surprisingly, it means very different things for men and women. I had a chat about this to social commentator Bettina Arndt, who has been speaking and writing about relationships for many years.

wedding ring on finger

The Effect of Marriage on Income

Ross Greenwood: Now according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, getting hitched is back in fashion. In 2011 there were 121,752 marriages in Australia — the highest registered in a single year, and divorces were down 2.6 per cent from the year before. But people are marrying later. These days the median age for males to first marry is 31.4 years of age, and for females it’s 29.3 years. But through the 1970s, it was usual to get married in your early twenties. Now, Bettina, explain to me — you believe that delaying getting married changes not only the structure of the family, but also the wealth of the family from both the male and female point of view.

Bettina Arndt: My interest in this stems from a report that came out from the Washington-based Brookings Institute which was called Knot Yet. What they showed was that for professional, educated women, delaying marriage meant they tended to end up with more money. That’s because they have a whole decade in which to establish themselves, get a degree and get some seniority in their careers, before they settle down and have children. 

The US figures show that college-educated women who wait until 30 or later to marry earn about $18,000 a year more than college-educated women who marry a lot earlier [before age 20]. But the opposite is true for men. Men tend to earn more when they’re married than when they’re not married. The report found that with men in their mid-thirties, those who had married in their twenties had the highest level of income. And men who had never married had some of the lowest incomes. 

Part of that is the nose to the grindstone issue. When you become a provider – and particularly when you’ve got children – traditionally, men have been seen to work harder in that situation. But there’s also the issue of having a wife. The wife is there to support the partner and, very often, her career gets sacrificed in order to support him as the major breadwinner. But if a man takes a whole decade to get to that point, he ultimately ends up earning less, because he loses out on all those early years of pushing himself.

The Marriage / Career Balance

RG: Let’s be honest, there is still this gender gap in the workforce. Moves are being made to bring more women into senior management ranks, and I’m in favour of that. But if you have more women aspiring to those higher managerial ranks, you have the potential of some not marrying until they’re well into their forties, or not being able to have children. 

BA: Absolutely. Because this delay, this whole decade of dating that many of us are going through, means some women are going to miss out. There’s an argument that it’s been a strategic error for women to think they can be in just casual relationships and not think about getting married until they’re reaching their thirties, because then they hit a really crowded marriage market. There are more women than men in every age group over 30, and it means men have more choice about who they choose to partner.

When we all got married in our early twenties, the men had no choice but to go for women in their early twenties. But if men wait until 30, they can choose from women in their twenties and in their thirties – and a significant proportion will choose slightly younger women. That leaves women in their thirties scratching to find a man. 

There are nearly 100,000 women in their forties who are single and childless. Of course there are some women who have never wanted to have children, but we know most women still want to have children. So that means some women have missed out on that.

Greenwood's verdict

I reckon this is like an old 1950s conservatism that’s come back in! People are marrying later in life, but they’re still getting married at a greater rate than once they were. And because couples are marrying later, when they’re more settled, the divorce rate is dropping. 

But you can’t ignore the economic pressures. With house prices so expensive, perhaps it’s less about love and marriage and a baby’s carriage keeping us together, and more about love and marriage and a mortgage.

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