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20 Years Later, Marriage Study Doesn't Hold Up


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Remember this?

(Soundbite of movie Sleepless in Seattle)

Unidentified Man (Actor): You know, it's easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to get married over the age of 40.

Ms. MEG RYAN (Actress): (As Annie Reed) That's not true. That statistic is not true.

Ms. ROSIE O'DONNELL (Actress): (As Becky) That's right. It's not true. But it feels true.

BRAND: That's from 1993's Sleepless In Seattle. The outrageous claim originally made headlines in Newsweek 20 years ago this week. It was based on a Yale-Harvard study that said if you were a white, college-educated woman over 30, you had a 20 percent chance of getting married. Hit 40, and you were down to two and a half percent. And that infamous line, More likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married.

Ms. CHRISTINE STROEBEL-SIMEKA: When I saw the story, I guess I was a little panic-stricken.

BRAND: That's Christine Stroebel-Simeka, one of the women featured in the original Newsweek story.

Ms. STROEBEL-SIMEKA: But I also found it hard to believe those statistics.

BRAND: So did a lot of people, including government census researchers. They did their own number crunching and said the study was bunk. In fact, if you were 30 you had as much as a 66 percent chance of getting married. Twenty years later, Newsweek has apologized this week with a cover story mea culpa. Still, says Stroebel-Simeka, with or without the story, there was pressure to be married at that age.

Ms. STROEBEL-SIMEKA: Well, I would say, in my early to mid-30s I was probably as most focused on marriage as ever. But I also, at the same time, when I turned 30 I bought a condominium. I really, truly wanted to just continue to live a full life.

BRAND: Ten years later, she married and became the mother of two stepsons.

Hazel Weiser(ph) was also in the original article, 37 at the time and unmarried. She says after the article came out, she made fun of the whole thing.

Ms. HAZEL WEISER: I think I called up my friend and said, well, we don't have to go to aerobics class anymore. And we can eat as many Dove bars as we want to - that, you know, I didn't have to worry about keeping myself in shape.

BRAND: Weiser, too, married about a year after the study was released. Now she watches her self-confident, 17-year-old daughter prepare to attend Wellesley College.

Do you think society is in a better place for her than it was for you?

Ms. WEISER: Oh, absolutely. The self-confidence of my daughter and her friends is just wonderful.

(Soundbite of Sex In The City)

Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER (Actress): (As Carrie Bradshaw): It's New York Magazine. They're doing a profile of 20 Manhattan singles, and it's called Single and Fabulous.

BRAND: Being single is still a huge part of our cultural zeitgeist. The women of TV's Sex In The City made it part of their appeal. They were single and fabulous.

(Soundbite of Sex In The City)

Ms. CYNTHIA NIXON (Actress): (As Miranda Hobbes) Why wasn't I picked? I'm single and I'm definitely fabulous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PARKER: Well, I was picked because Stanford's new boyfriend, Nevin, is the assistant photo editor.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): No, Carrie. You cannot leave. We never go dancing. Come on, one more drink.

Ms. PARKER: All right. One drink.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): One.

BRAND: And what about now? How are single women staring down 40 feeling about marriage? We caught up with Julie Downs, as she was running to catch a plane at the Pittsburgh Airport. She's a professor at Carnegie-Mellon.

BRAND: How old are you?

Professor JULIE DOWNS (Carnegie-Mellon): Thirty-eight.

BRAND: Thirty-eight and single.

Prof. DOWNS: And single.

BRAND: And loving it?

Prof. DOWNS: By and large. I mean, I love it when I don't think about the fact that I'm 38.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And single for 38 years, she adds. She says it would be hard to give up her lifestyle. She moved to Pittsburgh for a job and she has lots of friends there. But it turns out there's a downside to the location.

Prof. DOWNS: It's a lovely city, but it's always sort of the last on the list of cities to be single in. Like (unintelligible) Forbes magazine, this last year after year after year. One year it was next to last. So it was sort of a banner year for us.

BRAND: People leave Pittsburgh when they're young and single and return married with kids. Even so, Julie has discovered a silver lining.

Prof. DOWNS: I feel almost like now that I'm approaching 40, there's this whole pool of divorced men. Like, maybe my chances are looking up.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

BRAND: You teach psychology?

Prof. DOWNS: Yes, psychology. Decision science, ironically...

BRAND: Decision science.

Prof. DOWNS: ...for someone who can't make a decision.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: What would decision science say to you?

Prof. DOWNS: What a decision scientist would say to me is that if I'm dissatisfied with the current situation, I need to expand the number of options that I'm choosing between. And you know, that takes effort. And that takes, you know, making conscious decisions.

BRAND: What about lowering your expectations?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DOWNS: I'd rather be single.

BRAND: And fabulous. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).