Marry Me? Maybe Later...

The age of nuptials is increasing globally because women are finally independent; is the reason different in Austria?

News | Marina Begovic | December 2010 / January 2011

Not long ago, marriage seemed like a solution to every woman’s future. It brought financial security, status in society, and children to start the picture-perfect family she had always dreamed of.

Today, the equation has been changed: With access to education, financial independence and reliable birth control, marriage is not the only answer anymore. A woman can make her own place in society through a job or career that will also support her financially, and she can even chose whether or not she wants children. And, if she opts to start a family, she can even do it on her own and will be accepted in the majority in most developed societies.

With all these new opportunities it is no surprise the average age that people decide to "tie the knot" has been increasing worldwide, and at an equal rate in Austria, where the six year gap between men and women in the mid-80’s has been closing steadily ever since.

By 2009, according to Statistik Austria, the gap was down to two years, with men at an average of 31.8 and women at 29.1.

The assertion that women now are catching up because of increasing opportunities is one of the many claims made by Demographic Research, a online, peer-reviewed journal of population sciences published by the Max Planck Institute in Rostock, Germany. The trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future and plateau soon, and to create an entirely different set of lifestyle norms for generations to come.

In person, Austrian women seem to have mixed views. Three friends, Lena, Emily and Sophie, met one November afternoon at Le Bol, a French restaurant and café on the Neuer Markt in Vienna’s 1st District. Lena Keller, a 31-year-old creative director in an advirtising firm from Vienna is in a long-term relationship; still, she says, she and her boyfriend do not plan to marry or start a family.

"I come from a family of five children so I am always surrounded by my siblings and relatives, and I just don’t want all that for myself," she says.  She plans to stay focused on her career and is glad she found someone who shares her attitude.

"I’m not surprised by the statistics at all, though" interjects Lena’s friend Emily Browning, a British-Austrian who has quite a different plan for her future. Blonde and bubbling with energy, she is 29 and in a relationship that she is sure will last and wants a family and kids soon. Emily says she would give up her career as an advertising creative in an instant to stay home and raise children.

"I would like to work again when my kids start school but I don’t want to leave them alone all day while they are young."

Sophie Kohl, the final member of the trio, also plans to get married and start a family but is currently single at 27 and doesn’t feel rushed to find the right man just yet. She plans to leave it to fate to decide if she will eventually marry or not – but sincerely hopes that she does, "even if I get married at 50!" Sophie attributes the increase in marriage age to the fact that job markets have become so competitive, something she sees daily as a copy writer at the same firm Lena works in.

"People become managers and directors much earlier than they used to," she said. "Younger employees today have a lot more competition and have more expected of them, so I think most don’t have time to start families and marriages."

The beginnings of this shift are recent, in fact, but can be traced back to the 1970s, according to Statistik Austria. However, it was not till the 1980’s that the numbers delaying marriage in Austria started changing dramatically; since then,they have continued to increase steadily, but at a slower rate. In 1981 approximately 59 percent of women and 82 percent of men between the ages of twenty and twenty-five were single, as opposed to 70 percent and almost 90 percent, respectively, towards the late 80’s.

Women today are simply in a "better bargaining position" than ever before, say Demographic Research.

However, some there is disagreement as to whether this theory applies to Austria. Among those who think otherwise is Dr. Gudrun Biffl, former staff researcher and demographer at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and now professor at the Donau-Universität Krems. Dr. Biffl has made a special study of issues related to women’s employment and education, and the EU labor market and migration in general. She says that the increasing marriage age is a "catching up process" but that women here still have a long way to go.

"Austria has had a rather early age of first marriage till recently and is still in the middle of European averages," Biffl said. She credits part of this rise to a successful policy giving women not only equal opportunities but also higher education. But it is not the Austrian women who are making the decision to postpone their nuptials.

"It is particularly the young men in Austria who don’t see a reason for marrying," Dr. Biffl said. "They feel that they only have expenses [by having a family] and no advantages." It is extremely difficult for young men in Austria to have a wife and family as they "have to pay a price for a child with none of the joy." She cited Holland as a counter example, because fathers there get 1 day a week off to be with their children. There are no such opportunities for fathers in Austria, she says, and it is actually very difficult for a young man to build a successful career if he is trying to balance family life.

"It is extremely expensive to have a child in Austria," Biffl said, "especially to have it cared for all day if both parents are working."

The effect of all this? Women are not as career-orientated as in more Nordic and Western countries, but "not by choice, but because this is the institutional arrangement in Austria." Although many might start to work early on to supplement family income, she says, their careers are not at their top of their priority lists.

Austria is not alone in the shift towards rising marriage age. In fact, it is difficult to find countries globally who have not been experiences the same shifts. The U.S. and many Western European countries share similar increases in age and some are actually higher than that in Austria. Spain, Sweden and Denmark’s populations, males and females both, all tend to marry over the age of 30 with Spain at the front of the pack; 33.6 for men and 32.9 for women in 2008 according to the United Nations World Marriage Patterns. In other, usually more traditional countries, the gap between women and men is larger than elsewhere and the age for women is under 20 in some South Asian and Middle-Eastern countries such as Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Yemen.

The rise in marriage age is an undeniable demographic change. The part that is questionable is the reason for it. There are such a wide spectrum of answers and opinions on the subject that is it impossible to pin it only on a side effect from changes in the business world for women.

What is certain is that the general trend is becoming more and more popular for the entire population, regardless of the reason. From now on in books and movies the response used when a man asks the big question might have to be changed from "I do" to "I might… eventually."

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    the vienna review December 2010 / January 2011