The Age of Independence

by Kieran Healy on July 11, 2007

The other day David Brooks “wrote a column”: which appeared to be a stock piece of standard conservative anxiety about what he called “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving” young women. “Matt Yglesias picks up on”: on the piece today, salvaging the key insight of Brooks’ piece from the muddled pop-culture framing. As Brooks says,

bq. Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.

Matt comments:

bq. The reality is that technological and economic change has raised the age at which people — particularly more upscale people — do things like get married and have children. But biology stays the same. Consequently, people in their teens and early twenties engage in a lot of courtship-related program activities that don’t really entail a good-faith search for a spouse.

This point is basically correct. And for the past two months, a book exploring just this issue has been sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read properly, instead of skimmed. It’s Michael Rosenfeld’s The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family.

Rosenfeld is a sociologist and social demographer “at Stanford”: His book is about changes in the life-course in the United States over the past half-century or so, and their effects on patterns of marriage. For individuals, the life-course is the actual sequence of statuses and roles achieved by particular people, together with the stories they tell about their own biographies. At the level of societies, it is a more-or-less institutionalized set of roles (and rules governing transitions between them), together with collective representations of what a well-ordered life ought to look like. Life-course research isn’t all that sexy, and this is a pity because the connection between the structure of one’s own particular life and the social organization of lives in general is extremely important. The Age of Independence exploits the connection in a creative way.

Rosenfeld begins by asking why American society has seen such a rapid increase in and tolerance for same-sex and interracial couples over the past thirty years. It’s clear to most commentators that much the same thing is happening to the acceptability of same-sex unions as happened to interracial unions in the 1960s and ’70s. Why? There’s a conservative narrative to the effect that the country is going to hell. There’s a whig narrative that fundamental rights are finally and inevitably being recognized. But why is this happening _now_, when such public unions were successfully repressed for such a long time? Rosenfeld’s idea is to connect these changes to the emergence of a new life-course stage, which he labels the Age of Independence.

Since around 1960, increasing numbers of young people have left home but without themselves starting families soon afterwards. Instead they go off to college by themselves, and then perhaps move to work in a city, surrounded by people much their own age and, like themselves, unmarried. This is the Age of Independence. It can last ten or fifteen years. Much as the teenager emerged as a social category and life-stage in the early post-war period, the Age of Independence becomes established as a phase in people’s lives.

From the point of view of social organization, its defining feature is a weakening or elimination of methods of social control used by parents and their proxies to control the social and sexual behavior of their children. Parents can’t monitor or manage their children as easily because they aren’t living at home, or even anywhere nearby, and the children themselves do not get caught up in the demands of the next lifecourse stage — becoming parents themselves — right away.

A consequence for individuals is that relationships which would otherwise have been stifled or eliminated now have the opportunity to form at this stage of life. And it is this that helps explain why first interracial and then same-sex unions increase so rapidly and become controversial legal and political issues when they do. And of course once this gets started, there are various knock-on effects such as political mobilization of the relevant groups, the increasing cultural valuation of personal independence and privacy in general, and so on, which feed back into the process and help institutionalize it.

None of this is to dismiss the political and social-movement work that activists and others have had to do to establish a legal or normative framework for these kinds of unions. Rather, what I take Rosenfeld to be doing is trying to show how these kinds of opportunities open up structurally in the first place.

Now, I’m not a social demographer, or an expert on family structure, and I haven’t read the book in great detail. But the book’s approach is appealing. It connects issues of individual identity and choice to very broad social-structural change through a study of changes in the life-course. And it can explain just the kind of issues that David Brooks and — rather more clearly — Matt Yglesias pick out. Worth a read.

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07.11.07 at 2:54 pm



Jim Harrison 07.11.07 at 5:32 am

I’ve been arguing for some time that the fact that many people aren’t getting married and those who are getting married don’t have very many children makes the emergence of new forms of cohabitation not only inevitable but highly desirable. The demographic transition of our age means that far fewer of us will live in traditional families. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant. The social and emotional consequences need to be addressed.


Nick L 07.11.07 at 9:57 am

Could the internet possibly curb or reverse the trend however? ICT is making anonymity and escaping from old social circles increasingly difficult (cf: facebook etc). Won’t it be much easier in 10 years time for parents to keep tabs on their university-age children than it was in the 1960s?


Katherine 07.11.07 at 10:01 am

Note: as someone about to move out of the Age of Independence, I and most of my group of peers don’t consider pairing off and/or getting married as the end of that Age. It’s the having of kids. The two events – permanent coupling and beginning of procreation – should not be falsely conflated in any discussion about life stages.


Steve LaBonne 07.11.07 at 12:25 pm

Everybody in this discussion appears to be taking the unusually low age-at-marriage of the immediate post-WWII years as some kind of baseline of “normality”. That seems fallacious.


Kieran Healy 07.11.07 at 12:43 pm

In the book Rosenfeld takes a longer perspective, going back as far as census data will allow into the 19th century.


Scott Greer 07.11.07 at 1:06 pm

Actually a point about Yglesias, but: the biology doesn’t stay the same either. Better diet, above all, has pushed it down. Over demographic history, that’s fairly common; famines drive up age of puberty and plenty drives it down. So, aspects of the age of independence doesn’t just extend far into adult life; they also start to manifest rather younger than most of us would like to see.


Karl Steel 07.11.07 at 2:22 pm

Responding to comment #5:
Doesn’t go back far enough, says the medievalist. I’ll quote from a simple guide, Shannon McSheffrey’s Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London:

“Marriage in London had a special aspect: because so many young people came to London to work while they were in their teens, they often made their first marriages while living away from their parents and other family members” (14). Arranged marriages were common only in the highest levels of the elite; people below that tended to chose their own partners, generally their own age while in their mid 20s. In Southern Europe, we see instead men around age 30 marrying women age 15-19. Finally, “As English men and women moved away from home and started to work seriously when they were between twelve and fourteen, this left a long period of adolescence, when young people were neither children nor fully adults, which came with marriage” (16).

Short version: once more, David Brooks shows that he doesn’t know shit.


Dan Simon 07.11.07 at 3:09 pm

This theory seems to me to get cause and effect completely reversed. The fundamental change, I’d argue, is that families have become far less stable than they used to be. (The main reason for that, I believe, is that technology has made financial independence for women possible, leaving women with options other than staying in unhappy family situations, and men with less guilt about leaving them.) As a result, the “age of independence” lasts from 13 to the end of life–“coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around” never really stop in a society with a fifty-percent divorce rate.

One consequence of this state of affairs is that fewer people have children, for lack of confidence in the stability of their marriages. Those that do have children tend to have them later, when they’re more confident that they, their partners and their relationships have matured to the point where the risk of family dissolution has decreased somewhat.

Another consequence is that same-sex unions stop looking all that different from “traditional families”–both are simply convenient indefinite cohabitations of couples currently attracted to each other, but ultimately uncertain of lifetime commitment (whatever they might currently say to themselves and each other).

It’s always hard to figure out the direction of causation in these situations, of course, but I’d think that it should be easy to tell whether the increase in childbearing ages preceded or followed the big jump in the divorce rate. Anyone have the figures?


Steve LaBonne 07.11.07 at 3:21 pm

You talk about people having fewer children, at an age when they’re better prepared to raise them, as though it were a bad thing…


Katherine 07.11.07 at 3:29 pm

“technology has made financial independence for women possible”



Russell Arben Fox 07.11.07 at 3:30 pm

Sounds like a fascinating study, Kieran, one that is simultaneously making some common-sense observations while creating a new (or at least expanded) theoretical framework for examining those observations. Thanks very much for sharing your views about the book.

Your description of the concept of a life-course–“the actual sequence of statuses and roles achieved by particular people, together with the stories they tell about their own biographies”–seems to have a vague, background, sociological/communitarian connection to the philosophical studies of modernity engaged in by folks like Alasdair MacIntyre, with their concern for “narrative” and how one’s assessments of oneself and of other people and situations is tied up in the existence of stories which find embodiment in various social roles, responsibilities, and opportunities. It would not all be difficult to see the technological/biological/economic changes which make the “Age of Independence” a possibility to be highly relevant to the confusion and conflation of what used to be standard narratives regarding courtship, sexuality, career stability, procreation, “growing up,” etc.; and the collapse or alteration or dismissal of such narratives thus elimates the power they once wielded over our internalized self-assessments, with the consequence that, as you say, “relationships which would otherwise have been stifled or eliminated now have the opportunity to form.”

I suppose one might argue that this additional MacIntyrean layer of interpretation inevitably pushes the matter of emerging “life-courses” into an inevitably conservative direction, with the sense that anything which interrupts the maintenance of guiding narratives is going to be corrupting to living a good life. But I don’t think that’s necessarily so. You can inquire into how sociological changes alter our ability as individuals to tell persuasive stories about what we (particularly at a certain age) think we are doing and what we are a part of and why we think it is good, while being cognizant of how new paths to those goods are emerging.


Dan Simon 07.11.07 at 3:43 pm


Technology (I’m talking about the industrial revolution and subsequent advances here, not just, say, the Web) has greatly reduced both the amount and physical strenuousness of the work necessary to achieve financial independence, to the point where most women today have considerably more market value than a man relying on his brawn alone to pay the bills. That was not the case back in the days when the vast majority of work was agricultural labor, or even industrial labor.


Dan Simon 07.11.07 at 3:57 pm

You talk about people having fewer children, at an age when they’re better prepared to raise them, as though it were a bad thing…

Actually, I was being purely descriptive, not prescriptive. Personally, as an older father, I see older parenthood as a double-edged sword. I definitely think I’m a better father in many ways than I would have been at a younger age, but I also recognize the advantage my youthful would have given me, and suspect that many parents who postpone their childrearing lose more than they gain. Whether “many” means “most”, though, is way too tough a call for me even to speculate on.


Karl Steel 07.11.07 at 4:07 pm

One consequence of this state of affairs is that fewer people have children, for lack of confidence in the stability of their marriages.

Are you just guessing or can you refer us to a study?

Strikes me, and this is just conventional wisdom, that the diminishing birthrate among certain groups of people derives from: a) lower infant mortality among these groups of people (discuss: relatively high birth rate in America among industrialized nations and its relation to our high infant mortality for an industrialized nation); b) changing labor practices (child labor largely takes place in the industrial centers of industrialized nations, i.e., in the ‘Global South,’ and migrant labor has replaced child labor within the industrialized nations); c) the pill, which allows people to avoid having children and thereby increasing their happiness by not tying them down to caring for selfish creatures who diminish our productivity and ability to travel.

And it continues to strike me that the discussions of marriage and children and labor here need a better comparative angle to take in late medieval Europe and in fact the rest of the world.


JR 07.11.07 at 4:28 pm

Karl Steel- London was a unique environment in many ways. One of the common hazards of early modern social history is that people readily extrapolate from London to all of English or even European experience when there is no valid reason to do so.


Dan Simon 07.11.07 at 4:54 pm

Are you just guessing or can you refer us to a study?

Just guessing, of course. Hey–it’s a blog!

lower infant mortality among these groups of people

No doubt that plays a major role–but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of family instability also contributing. (I’m sure there are many other factors involved, as well. Social Security and other retirement benefits, for example, reduce the incentive for people to have children to care for them in their old age.)

changing labor practices

If I’m not mistaken, the main collapse of birthrates in industrialized countries took place long after child labor effectively disappeared.

the pill

People are actually able to control their fertility quite effectively by non-pharmacological means, if they want to. I think motivational explanations for declining birthrates are much more plausible.


Andromeda 07.11.07 at 5:03 pm

Katherine: the bits of technology that immediately strike me (as the mother of an infant) are not at all the same as the ones that strike Dan Simon:

1) Reliable birth control (I presume its effects on women’s independence, financial opportunities, and financial obligations are obvious enough);

2) Baby formula and breast pumps. It’s been really staggering for me to discover that, without these items (or, I suppose, the affluence and cultural context in which to afford wet nurses), it would be *literally impossible* for me to be apart from the baby for more than 2-3 hours. Obviously financial independence for mothers of young children is basically impossible without that quite recent technology. (And financial independence later on is harder to gain with a period of dependency in one’s history.)

Of course not all women are mothers (or want to be, or should), but it’s a sufficiently common state that the technologies that facilitate motherhood are indispensable in such a discussion.


Crystal 07.11.07 at 5:22 pm

This sounds like an interesting book. I haven’t read it, but I surmise one of the reasons that this independent life stage has given young people much more freedom in their unions is that they are not only socially, but also financially, independent of their families. Therefore, the threat of poverty, being disowned, etc. for being in an interracial or same-gender union cannot be held over their heads.

I would add that this independent life stage seems to apply particularly to young women – who have always been more closely controlled by parents and community. Once young women had their own financial means, were able to live on their own without scandal, and had access to reliable birth control and no-fault divorce, they could afford to gamble on a “risky” marriage or partnership. I recall Stephanie Coontz, in her (excellent) Marriage, A History, pointing out that up until the 1970’s, women were far more likely than men to say they would marry someone they didn’t love if he was a “good provider and nice guy” etc. But a college-educated woman with good earning potential, who can live on her own, get birth control, and access to divorce, can much more afford what might be a risky relationship gamble.


Karl Steel 07.11.07 at 6:14 pm

London was a unique environment in many ways.

Right. And, er, in many ways it wasn’t. My point is not that we always have to remember London, but rather than narratives of changing conditions in marriage should be very careful to ground any grand pronouncements in the possibility that the conditions that believe are unique to (whatever gets to count as) today are not in fact unique. Thus when David Brooks writes, “Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30″ (my emphasis), someone should point out that what he’s describing is more or less 15th-century London. For example. And it’s as a “for example,” finally, that I cautioned against Brooks or Ygeslias or anyone else forgetting the Middle Ages. Not because the Middle Ages always speaks to us, but because it–and the preindustrial more generally–all too often serves as a nice, imaginary monolithic point of contrast for the wild days we live in now. Elementary stuff, yeah?

No doubt that plays a major role—but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of family instability also contributing.

No it doesn’t preclude that, but I doubt it. Strikes me that there’s a direct relationship between societies with good social safety nets and low birth rates. In other words, it seems that increasing stability in fact decreases the birth rate.


Dan Simon 07.11.07 at 6:49 pm

Karl, I generally agree with you, with two caveats: (1) falling birth rates don’t explain why so many people who do have children choose to delay the birth of those children, which is the most relevant question to the “age of independence” hypothesis under discussion, and (2) while broad social stability may decrease birth rates, individual family stability, I would argue, is likely to increase birth rates, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.


Dennis 07.11.07 at 9:11 pm

In my post pubescent years (1961-62) I became a mating organism. Of course I didn’t know anything about what that meant or what to do until later (much later) but the word “fuck” appeared on my verbal horizon like a marquee title and even though I didn’t know what it meant, I sensed it was a very important word. Hey, that’s what it’s like growing up, blue collar in NYC. Until I was married at 25, connecting with chicks, getting laid, coveting my friends girlfriends, etc. was my primary need. Then I get married, had three children. The oldest gets to the appropriate age and I have what is essentially, the birds and the bees conversation. I talk about how to handle relationships. Waste of my time. Not one of my three responded to their respective social circles in the same way and not one of them responded in the way that I had expected because of my own experiences. One, there was no desperate needing, two, there was no interest in heterosexuality, (a friend explained; “they have loose boundaries at this age” when I questioned if it was possible that his son and my son were gay and with each other. They weren’t). So with that said, and I didn’t want this to be an autobiography, I look at my children and their friends growing up, reaching adulthood, not doing behaviors that I thought were natural to humans, shit like “falling in love”. I don’t know how to relate to someone not having the urge to fall in love. I’m not analytical, I’m not an intellectual, I’m an existentialist, so the line about children from Kahlil Gibran’s “the Prophet” moves me and which reads:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you
with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

That gets me at least a metaphoric answer for why the kids of today are not like the kids of my youth. If I am not mistaken, I believe that my first son has just helped to deliver his first child today. He is thirty, that is the same age as me when he was born. I am not sure, he lives half way round the world in Shanghai. Ain’t life sumthin?


leederick 07.11.07 at 10:44 pm

I think he’s put the cart before the horse.

Is engaging in ‘a lot of courtship-related program activities that don’t really entail a good-faith search for a spouse’ a consequence of ‘the age at which people get married and have children [having] gone up’? Or is ‘the age at which people get married and have children [having] gone up’ a consequence of people wanting to engage in ‘a lot of courtship-related program activities that don’t really entail a good-faith search for a spouse’?

I’d choose the second option.

I think it’s very hard to claim that technological and economic changes are forcing ages at childbirth and marriage to upwards. There haven’t been any real contraceptive improvements upon the Pill and Higher Ed is 3/4 years. I don’t think the dynamic is there – isn’t the age just too high to be forced by economics? People are in an economic position to marry earlier than they do, but don’t because they choose to maintain their independence.


H. E. Baber 07.12.07 at 1:05 am

Didn’t Russell get into some hot water for his views on “free love”–which amounted to the proposal that students enter into temporary cohabitation arrangements so that they could have their sexual needs taken care of without the time and energy consuming business of preening and courting, picking up and hooking up, so that they could better concentrate on their studies?

This seems like a good idea to me. What I wonder is whether people like these “courtship-related activities” as such or merely as a means to getting sex without long-term commitment or as a means to getting a wide range of sex partners. Would Russell’s program fly? Freshman orientation: here is your roommate/sex partner for the year. We expect that you’ll get on but if you really can’t you may apply to the Dean of Students for a switch. Remember though–all cats are equally gray in the darkness, yuk, yuk.

Personally I’d have loved this kind of arrangement. Or failing that a web-based sex hook-up service: get your partner for the evening, no hassle. Get the sex taken care of so you can get on with business. What I wonder though if whether for some the courtship business, the competition, the seduction routines aren’t in some way gratifying in themselves, in the way that sports or video games are, if the tail isn’t wagging the dog so to speak. Still lots of cultures get on without this business and, until recently, it didn’t occupy 17 years of people’s lives.


vivian 07.12.07 at 1:12 am

23: “There haven’t been any real contraceptive improvements upon the Pill “
Uh, excuse me? There are lots of modifications – to the combination of hormones, to tweaking the synthetic ones, many variations in strength. There are hormonal versions that aren’t swallowed: the patch, the ring, the IUDs. (The injection and the implant are less than stellar, but still variations.) There are the new pills that don’t cause a monthly bleed.

I presume your larger point is that we’ve had legal, reliable contraception for forty-five years now, so there should be no change in unintended pregnancy/forced marriages since then, and all subsequent variation is purely choice. But life and society are messier than that.


Tom T. 07.12.07 at 2:19 am

This book strikes me as somewhat overblown generational exceptionalism. Every generation thinks it invented sex, after all. And as an earlier commenter pointed out, the median age at marriage for men is right where it was in the 1890s. Young people have always done things that would have shocked their parents. The ethnically and religiously mixed marriages that have followed various waves of immigration were horrifying to earlier generations, whether between Jews and Italians in New York, Danes and Armenians in California, or (earlier) English and Germans in Pennsylvania. Those upheavals, long before the “Age of Independence,” have receded far enough that they seem unremarkable to us, and so we assume that the mixing we see in our times is somehow unique. And in the future, tomorrow’s young people will surprise today’s hipsters with group marriages, virtual sex changes, and some sort of heretofore unimagined phenomenon that will come to be know as Googlesnogging. And they’ll be just as convinced that they represent something never seen before.


Kaleberg 07.12.07 at 4:08 am

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC used to have a great 3,000 year old papyrus on display. It was a letter from a father to his son, complaining about his dissipated life style, hanging around bars, screwing loose women, and generally wasting his time. The more things change …

I’m a materialist. The simple fact is that people like sex; they like romantic love; they enjoy a sense of openness and adventure, especially before taking on family responsibilities.

The reason young adults get to enjoy this sort of thing for a longer period than they ever used to is simple: they can.

Politics and technology have moved women into the work force. They can earn money and control it. Men have often delayed having children until they had established careers. Now women delay having children for the same reason.

Technology also helps. It is easy to underestimate the impact of the pill, but the pill gives the woman control. Before the pill, every time a woman had sex, she was taking a risk of getting pregnant, and possibly dying during childbirth. If you could get polio from drinking beer, consider the impact of a polio vaccine on beer sales.

Of course conservatives like to whine about this stuff. Half the cave paintings on the walls of Lascaux were probably drawn by stuffy old people whining about young people being young and having lots of sex and few responsibilities, while the other half were probably drawn by young people getting it on.


Camassia 07.12.07 at 5:33 pm

As I remember from my family-sociology course, the overall drop in American birth rates started in the late nineteenth century. There was the baby boom after WWII, of course, but that was an aberration (and did not bring birth rates back up to their pre-industrial level). For that reason, I think the decline in childbearing was tied to the end of child labor, and the fact that kids went from being a financial asset to a financial drain.

I also agree with the point that some others have made that the Age of Independence has really changed for women more than for men. In most places and times a teenage girl marrying a guy 10 or 15 years older wouldn’t have gotten a second glance, but now it’s likely to get him arrested.


marcel 07.13.07 at 2:23 pm

#17 wrote If I’m not mistaken, the main collapse of birthrates in industrialized countries took place long after child labor effectively disappeared.

I’m almost certain this is wrong. Economists (& demographers?) call this “The Demographic Transition”. Usually (i.e. historically in most countries that have developed or are developing) there is substantial population growth in the early stages of development due to much reduced infant/child mortality, in turn due to important improvements in sanitation, and maternal and early childhood nutrition. At this point, most of the society is still agricultural; what isn’t is, by our lights, early industry. In both sectors, child labor is usually an important component. Birth rates typically take a generation or 2 to adjust. An incomplete list of explanations for the lower birth rates: include more children surviving to adulthood: children becoming more and more an expense as child labor falls, and required training/education increases: and higher living standards reducing the need for children as social security.

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