Monday, July 06, 2009

The "more likely to be killed by a terrorist than marry after 40" myth

Audio and video for weeks 2 and 3 of my Willow Creek class are now available online. Week 2 was on "Seven Myths About Singleness and Marriage," and week 3 was on "The Power of Community, Inside and Out." Here's part of week 2, one of the myths about singleness and marriage:

Have you seen Sleepless in Seattle? Remember the line: “It’s easier to get killed by a terrorist than to get married after 40”? Where does that come from? Well, it comes from a 1986 Newsweek cover story. In 1986, Newsweek reported on an unpublished study and said that by age forty, a single, educated career woman is more likely to be “killed by a terrorist” than to ever get married. Supposedly they had a 2.6% chance of getting married. The study argued that “white, college-educated women born in the mid-1950s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent.” This study was widely quoted. The only problem was that it was totally wrong.

A Census Bureau report from about the same time found that single women at 30 had a 66% likelihood of getting married, not 20%, and at 40 had a 23% probability of marriage, not 2.6%.

The killed by a terrorist line wasn’t based on any research on terrorism. It was an exaggeration on Newsweek’s part, not a statistical finding of the study. It was written as a funny aside in an internal reporting memo by Newsweek’s San Francisco correspondent Pamela Abramson. She said years later, "It's true--I am responsible for the single most irresponsible line in the history of journalism, all meant in jest." In New York, writer Eloise Salholz inserted the line into the story. "It was never intended to be taken literally," says Salholz. But most readers missed the joke.

Newsweek finally retracted this “killed by a terrorist” claim twenty years later, in May 2006. Twenty years after the original article, they reported: "Those odds-she'll-marry statistics turned out to be too pessimistic: today it appears that about 90 percent of baby-boomer men and women either have married or will marry, a ratio that's well in line with historical averages."

The new article now says that the odds of getting married after 40 are more than 40%. And contrary to earlier projections that college educated women are less likely to marry, it’s now much more likely for women with college degrees to marry than not. A 2004 study says that of female college graduates born between 1960 and 1964, 97.4% will marry.

The original 1986 article looked at 14 women who were single and supposedly more likely to be killed by a terrorist. Twenty years later, Newsweek managed to track down 11 of the 14. Eight are married and three remain single. In other words, 72% of those eleven got married. One got married at age 40 and remains blissfully married at age 50. Several have children or stepchildren. None divorced. And none have been killed by a terrorist.


Unknown said...

That's really funny.

JAM said...

Although it's good to see that earlier statistics were an exaggeration, this still isn't exactly good news. Sure, most of the women from the Newsweek article eventually married, but only two of the eleven that were tracked down actually had children naturally. The rate of women not becoming mothers by their mid-forties has soared to over 20 percent. This may not be a problem for those who never wanted children, but the vast majority of women do want to be mothers. Cartoonish examples of fearmongering should not be misused to dismiss the existence of a problem that is very real, particular among well-educated churchgoing women who almost always outnumber male peers in their congregations.