The old is new again, and again

Look at these statistics and ask yourself if these are alarming trends: young people are entering their first marriage at an average age of 26, cities are brimming with unmarried men and women in their twenties and they are surviving with a succession of short term jobs.

Whatever happened to the normal trajectory of marriage after high school or college, finding a career and working at one firm for a lifetime?

1860 young women

The alarming trends of late marriages and young men and women escaping to cities with no stable work history happen to be a description of the 1860’s! Jon Grinspan of the Smithsonian Institution is researching the 19th century reality for those 20 year olds (New York Times, 1 January 2014) and reports that today’s millennials share the anxiety of their ancestors.  “They found living with their parent ‘humiliating indeed’ and felt ‘qualified for nothing.’ Others moaned: ‘I am twenty-five and not in love yet.’”

Grinspan’s research reveals that coming to adulthood in the mid-19th century was fraught with uncertainty and change.  The population of the United States increased from 5 million to 75 million in the 19th century which meant that at the end of the century more people lived in New York than in all 13 states after the revolution. Mid-century also produced the bloodiest war of our history as the Civil War raged.

However, the greatest impact on young people was the astounding change in the economy of  America: the impact of the industrial revolution was colossal. Young people found that “They were monitored like machines, with pressure to increase productivity replacing the slower pace of preindustrial labor.”  19th century Industry has rusted in place by the end of the 20th century, and we are now an information economy and witnessing the stresses of again preparing for new types of jobs.

Looking through the lens of history we see that what is facing our college students today is a pattern we have faced before. It is the recent past (the post-World War II era) that is the anomaly! Grinspan reports: “A society in which people married out of high school and held the same job for 50 years is the historical outlier.”

This time around, however, one group is faring better.  In the mid-19th century young women were particularly impacted by the late marriage pattern.  Only marriage defined women’s social and economic stability.  Perhaps it is no surprise that by the mid-19th century, women were seeking more education and working to get the vote. At Seneca Falls, New York, women gathered in July of 1848 to promote women’s rights and in 1881 women formed the American Association of University Women. A great change was beginning.  Women looked to education to deal with new realities.  And it worked.

In today’s new era of anxiety, women are no longer sequestered in limited social roles. Today women are the majority in higher education.  They have both the opportunity as well as the tension of negotiating new types of jobs, late marriage and delayed parenthood.  “[19th century] Americans considered young adulthood the most dangerous part of life, and struggled to find a path to maturity.”  The story for the 21st century is more of the same, again.



About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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