Marriages these days hardly see the golden anniversary as people seem to prefer live-in relationships more and more…

Last week my wife and I attended a lunch to celebrate the golden wedding of a couple whom we have known for very nearly the whole of the period of their marriage. Next week we are due to attend another golden wedding lunch, this time of a former colleague of mine. Two years ago we celebrated our own golden wedding, and the year before that we had similar celebrations for two couples who were friends of very long standing — and who, rather inconveniently, had their celebrations on successive days, in completely different parts of the country.

When you reach a certain age it should of course be hardly surprising if golden weddings figure prominently on your social calendar — and yet, and yet, people now tend to marry later in their lives than used to be the case, and, sadly, many more marriages than in the past do not last. Reflecting on all this, I wonder if golden weddings are in fact as frequent as, superficially, my personal recent experience seems to suggest.

Supporting evidence

I confess that I have not undertaken any serious research into this, but there are some indications that seem to support this theory. One of these indications is that it is more difficult than we expected to find specific golden wedding greetings cards. In one of the Cambridge stores which carries a wide variety of cards, there turned out to be plenty of silver wedding cards, but no golden wedding ones. We had to make do with suitably golden looking general greetings cards.

There was nothing wrong with that, but it did provide yet another indication that our modest plethora of golden wedding celebrations might be more unusual than we had initially assumed it to be.

At last week's celebration about 60 people were present, most of them, not surprisingly, of similar age to us. Most of them were in good health. They provided excellent evidence of the fact, which I wrote about in my Cambridge Letter on February 6, that people are living to a much greater age than they did even one generation ago.

That brings many social consequences with it. The state of health of our fellow guests at last week's golden wedding party is one of them. Another was reflected in a tea party held a few weeks ago for retired members of my university department. It is an annual event — and attendance is growing. It may not be wholly fanciful to think that we may soon reach the point where retired members outnumber current staff.

Today, a few hours before writing this, my wife and I were at another reunion gathering — this time, a lunch for people who lived in the large village on the further outskirts of London in the early 1960s. Some still live there. Many, like us, do not, but we have kept in touch and meet every year. This year, 16 of us were present.

What the numbers say

The more I reflect on these various gatherings, the more I realise that the picture they paint is imprecise and confused. The confusion becomes greater the more one digs beneath the surface. For example, figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that the number of weddings has fallen to the lowest figure since 1895 — when the population of the country was 30 million compared with over 50 million now. A much higher number of people now live together without marrying than was the case a generation ago. Divorce rates have fluctuated (though the official figures are quite difficult to analyse).

If fewer people marry — and more of those who do, marry when they are older than their parents were when they married — and more marriages end in divorce, the number of couples achieving their golden weddings must surely decline, even though the expectation of life has increased. It may be that we shall soon enter an era of “golden partnership” celebrations, rather than golden weddings but the — unscientific — evidence of what is available from shops selling greetings cards suggests that that is not the case yet.

From a personal point of view, of course, the statistical picture does not matter at all. The golden weddings that we have been attending have been enjoyable occasions for those celebrating them, and for their guests. You can enjoy a good party without agonising over the rarity or otherwise of what it is designed to celebrate. Thankfully, the Office for National Statistics is not the body which defines enjoyment.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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