Monday 26 September 2016

So, why do we keep waiting and waiting to tie the knot?

As new CSO figures show we're getting married later than ever, we find out why Irish people are so reluctant to marry

Ailin Quinlan

Published 02/04/2015 | 10:15

Darragh Buckley and wife Dee waited until after their 20s to get married so they could enjoy college and travel. They now run a shop together.
Darragh Buckley and wife Dee waited until after their 20s to get married so they could enjoy college and travel. They now run a shop together.
Naoise McNally and Ronan Lyons.
Darragh Buckley and his wife Dee

When I tied the knot at the age of 25, one of the wedding guests informed me - to my immense displeasure - that I was "old to be getting married."

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It was 1989 and, yes, in demographic terms, I probably was no spring chicken - lots of my peer group had already invested in the starter home and the three-piece suite.

But fast forward a few decades and hey presto! It's suddenly the norm to get hitched in your 30s.

According to CSO figures published yesterday, Irish newly weds are 10 years older than their parents were when they walked up the aisle back in the 1970s.

The average age of the groom last year was 35, while his bride was generally about 33. But that 10-year lag is not the only interesting thing about Celtic wedding habits.

By marrying later, we Irish are also bucking an international trend according to Dr Carmel Hannon of the Sociology Department of the University of Limerick - because according to international research, we should actually have missed the boat.

"Sociologists abroad say that if people postpone marriage because of other opportunities such as education and access to employment, your chances of marrying later on are lower," she observes.

To see what's driving this postponement we need to look at the wide-ranging, seismic changes in Irish society over the last two decades - it's not just that the recent recession has made us more restrained about shelling out for extravagant weddings while still in our 20s.

Naoise McNally and Ronan Lyons.
Naoise McNally and Ronan Lyons.

Since the 1980s, the population of our tiny island has experienced a rapid series of very significant changes in family stability, employment prospects, expectations and travel habits.

Our perspective of marriage too has changed fundamentally - we no longer view it as something that must happen in our 20s, or indeed, as a relationship which will last for life.

A whole generation of children, adolescents and young adults has witnessed a huge growth in marriage breakdown in recent decades - figures show there's been a six-fold increase since 1986.

That spike in broken marriages may well have made younger people more cautious about leaping into matrimony early in life, believes sociologist Fr Harry Bohan, chairman of The Céifin Centre for Values-Led Change and a priest for more than 50 years.

Bohan, who marries some 40 couples a year at his parish church in Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, has indeed noticed that the couples coming to stand at his altar have been getting older.

"I noticed the couples beginning to get a bit older from the mid-1990s," he recalls.

In the 70s and 80s when people got married, he says, they were far more likely to have been in their 20s.

Bohan, who established The Céifin Centre back in 1998, puts the change partly down to the "throwaway society" which he believes, emerged during the Celtic Tiger years, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.

"The Celtic Tiger years brought massive changes.

"We became a throwaway society in terms of food, clothes and other consumer items - and we also tended to walk away from marriage more easily.

"Younger people are seeing this and are increasingly reluctant to commit to a permanent relationship."

Darragh Buckley and his wife Dee
Darragh Buckley and his wife Dee

As a result, he believes, many now prefer to live with each other for a period before taking their vows.

This trend is reflected in statistics from Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care service, which has found that an increasing number of couples cohabit before taking the plunge - in 2010 the service's pre-marriage statistics showed that 59pc of couples who came for pre-marriage courses were cohabiting. By 2014 this had climbed to 65pc.

The service also says the years spent in a relationship before a couple commit to marriage is climbing - 32pc of couples who signed on for pre-marriage courses in 2010 had been together for between six and 10 years. By last year that had risen to 37pc.

It's a very complex issue, but no matter how you look at it, the increasing number of people entering and remaining in both second and third-level education instead of finding a job has had a major effect (between 1990 and 2004 alone the numbers of students attending third level in this country soared by 105pc.)

Says Tony Moore, a psychotherapist and relationships counsellor with Relationships Ireland: "More people are going on to college and staying on, which means they won't finish their education at the earliest until they are in their early 20s.

"More of them are then going on to do post-graduate work such as a Master's degree or a PhD so that delays their ability to get a job and settle down because they're not leaving college until their mid-to-late 20s.

"They're not in the right space to think about getting a house or having children because they don't have a job.

"At an age when their parents would have been working, settled and getting married in their early 20s, many of them are not even finished a basic degree."

And of course, there's the little matter of expectations - people who get married at 22 or 23, are still putting their lives together and may be prepared to rough it a bit.

However, by the time they're in their late 20s or early 30s they don't want to be starting off with two rickety chairs and a table - they want to walk into a nicely furnished home.

And in that context, let's not forget the utterly changed labour market.

Forty years ago when you got a job, you wouldn't have been overly optimistic in assuming that you were probably there for life.

But that landscape too, has undergone massive upheaval, as Moore points out

"If you get a job now, for a lot of people it will be on contract so the security is not there.

"That's changed the way people think, so they're delaying things until they get into a good financial position where they can take the "gamble" of getting married."

Naoise McNally (34), editor of the One Fab Day wedding website, got married in her early 30s. Most of her friends would have done the same, she says, pointing to the shift in lifestyle in this country:

"We're more educated. We travel more and we're more career-focused," says Naoise, who tied the knot with her partner Ronan Lyons in 2012.

"Typically what happens is that when people meet someone in their 20s, they often live together first for a number of years. Then they may often buy a house. Then they may get engaged - and then get married.

"All of this takes time and it's different to our parents' generation - they'd have met someone, got engaged, and got married by their early 20s."

She believes postponing is a good thing: "You know yourself better by the time you're in your 30s. You're more mature; you know what you are getting into."

Last but not least, in the huge metamorphosis which has overtaken Irish lifestyles, is the fall-off in societal and family pressure on women to tie the knot early on for the sake of financial security and social acceptability.

Fiona (39), a civil servant based in Dublin, is getting married this summer to her 40-year-old partner.

"For me, it was definitely a question of meeting the right person. I think there's probably less societal and financial pressure on women to get married than there might have been 20 or 30 years ago.

"None of my family ever made an issue of me not being married.

"In fact, my mother has said to me "there's no rush to a bad market!

"Also, I've been lucky enough to be financially independent, so that wasn't a factor for me, as it might have been for women years ago.

"I think it's a good thing that women aren't under so much pressure to get 'fixed up' and that they marry for the right reasons."

'Waiting until my 30s to get married was the best decision'

Darragh Buckley's dad was married with three children by the age of 31. However, at that age recalls Darragh, he was still single and happily travelling around the world.

Last August, at the age of 35, he married his partner Dee, then aged 33, whom he'd met in Australia in 2010.

"We had been living together for about four years after meeting in Australia.

"We got engaged on Valentine's Day in 2012," says Buckley, who runs the Urban Health Food Shop in Ranelagh with Dee.

He believes that the increasing age at which Irish couples are marrying has a lot to do with college attendance, a rocky jobs market, and a strong itch to travel.

"I think more people in my generation were going to college and finding it tricky to get jobs - and going travelling.

"Also, Irish weddings are getting very extravagant so people are waiting longer to save up. There are no cheap and cheerful weddings any more.

"Staying longer in college, travelling and saving up for a decent wedding all takes time.

"When I was in Australia, I was around 28 or 29 and I noticed the Australian girls were not interested in me."

"In Australia they were getting married at 25 or 26 which was very young compared to Irish girls."

He believes that waiting until his 30s to tie the knot was a very good decision.

"I think it has worked out very well for us. Waiting those extra few years meant I made more informed decisions and didn't spend money on stupid stuff.

"We put our money to good use and made every penny count, which we would not have had the foresight or maturity to do when we were younger!"

In conversation with Ailin Quinlan

Irish Independent

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