Why Not Marry at 20 If You’re Rich and Famous?

What Women Really Think
March 19 2013 1:13 PM

The Economic Logic of Marrying Young (If You’re Miley Cyrus)

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Singer Miley Cyrus got engaged at the ripe old age of 19

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Miley Cyrus may not, or may still, be getting married to Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus is 20, and got engaged at 19, while Hemsworth is just barely older, at 23. If that seems to you an unspeakably young age for marriage (not mention a patently bad idea), it’s probably because you don’t reside in one of two worlds: the celebrity sphere or the 1950s. After all, a new study on marriage trends shows that the marrying age in the U.S. keeps going up. But pop stars, as in so many other aspects of life, play by different rules.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

Consider: Hilary Duff married at 22, as did Kevin Jonas. Avril Lavigne was 21, and her marriage, lasting four years, is a relative success story compared to the rest. Britney Spears had her first and second marriages, to Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline, back-to-back at age 22. Jessica Simpson was 22 when she was wedded to Nick Lachey, and together they milked the bulk of their three-year marriage for an MTV reality show. On and on it goes, back through the old tabloid news cycles: Angelina Jolie at 20, Drew Barrymore at 19, Macaulay Culkin at 17.

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According to the latest statistics, this trend among celebrities seems downright regressive. Contemplating a wedding before one hits drinking age is increasingly an anomaly for a culture in which the median marrying age is now nearly 27 for women and 29 for men. The Knot Yet study, which came out last week, explores how the change in marriage age has affected America’s classes differently. College-educated women benefit from marrying and having kids later—they make more money and they’re less likely to divorce. But lower-income Americans, responding to economic pressures, wind up delaying marriage but not delaying having kids, which means they raise their children in poorer and less stable environments.

Once upon a time, men with high school degrees could obtain manufacturing jobs with solid wages and pensions that enabled them to marry and start families in their early 20s. Now, with the chances of nabbing a pension about as good as “winning the World Series,” as the Knot Yet study puts it, young blue-collar Americans can’t pay for a wedding, let alone a house and kids. But pop stars, of course, don’t have that problem. Nor do they, like middle- and upper-class women, need to worry about finishing college and working for several years before contemplating getting pregnant. They won’t be sacrificing a $10,000 annual bump in salary by marrying too soon; instead, they’re probably making more in their late teens and 20s than they’ll ever make again. And getting married might well help their brand. (Having a baby certainly will.)

In other words, celebrities marry young not because they’re more mature than the rest of us (clearly) but because they have the means so much of America lacks. The move may be driven by youthful impulse, but it is also, in a strange way, logical. They’re just doing what so many of us would have (ill-advisedly) done as teenagers if we’d had loads of cash and legal independence from our parents: married our first loves.

But for all this, I think there’s one way in which celebrities are, as Us Weekly would put it, Just Like Us! The authors of Knot Yet write that as a cultural effect of delaying marriage, “marriage is transformed from a cornerstone to a capstone of adult identity. No longer the stabilizing base for the life one is building, it is now more of a crowning achievement.” During my parent’s generation, couples launched their adult lives together and built families and financial stability along the way, whereas now, those of us in our 20s and 30s believe we should be well on our way to professional success before marriage. It would seem that pop stars like Miley Cyrus are forgoing that by marrying barely out of puberty, but in fact they just happen to work in a business that brings success at an abnormally young age. They’re already there, or at least they feel like they are. The wedding feels like a capstone.

And it may be, at the very least, for the divorce lawyer.