Conventional wisdom and past research has suggested that older men can successfully attract younger women if they have other compensations to offer, namely high income and high social status. A new study turns that evidence on its head:
In direct contrast to conventional wisdom and most economic models of marital age gaps, we present robust evidence that men and women who are married to differently-aged spouses are negatively selected.
Empirical results show striking evidence of lower cognitive ability, lower educational attainment, lower occupational wages, lower earnings, and even less attractive appearance among those married to an older or younger spouse.
Yikes. What’s going on?
First, we need to establish what people prefer when seeking a mate. David Buss, in a study of 1,500 Americans, found that on average men most strongly prefer a mate about 2 years younger, while women prefer men about 2.5 years older. Today, the mean age gap in among American married couples is 2.3 years. It is interesting to note that for new marriages, the gap is only 1 year, compared to about 3 years a few decades ago.
Schwarz and Hassebrauck (2012) found that the sexes have different preferences over time when single:
As men grow older, they accept even younger women, but their tolerated age span regarding the oldest partner they would accept is unrelated to their own age. On the other hand, women tend to accept younger men as they grow older, but the oldest partner they will accept decreases as they age.
In “Old Guys Dig Young Women” & Other Creepy Facts from OKCupid, we see this preference illustrated. Consistent with the Schwarz study, women are consistently willing to tolerate up to about 8 years age difference:
Clearly, the older the unattached guy, the younger the woman he prefers. I suspect this has something to do with confronting mortality, a la Woody Allen. There is a rather amusing graph making the rounds online claiming that men reach their sexual peak at 38. (This graph, which has no data source, is being pimped by sad men in their 40s and 50s.) To be fair, men do peak a bit later than women, and their sexual value does not begin to drop steadily until about age 31:
Traditionally, researchers have held the view that both sexes benefit from a partner’s physical fitness, which decreases with age. Most women cite the desire to have children with a young male their key consideration. The women in my focus groups tend to be fairly conservative, indicating a squeamishness about men more than 5 years older than themselves. Perhaps because they are high earners in their own right, there is no satisfactory compensation that an older male can provide.
In addition, sexually restricted women prefer less sexual experience in a male partner, something that is presumably harder to come by in an older male:
For women only, sociosexual orientation was related to preferences with respect to sexual experience in a potential date or mate. Specifically, women with an unrestricted orientation to sex (i.e., those who have more positive attitudes toward casual, uncommitted sexual activity) gave higher desirability ratings to moderate or considerable sexual experience in a partner than did women with a restricted sociosexual orientation.
So who are these May-December couples?
Using General Social Survey data, researchers find that education levels predict age diversity in one’s social circle. In short, the less educated you are, the less you socialize with people your own age, and the less choice you have in the mating market:
If individuals prefer similarly-aged spouses, then both high-quality and low-quality individuals should match with similarly-aged spouses. Such preferences would not generate a match between two low-quality differently-aged partners. There is no way to explain why lower-quality individuals fail to match with similarly-aged spouses unless they are harder to meet. It may therefore be the case that previous models lack an important feature of marriage markets for the purposes of this empirical relationship, specifically, that age-heterogeneity of day-to-day contacts vary by education and occupation.
In marriage models, education and occupational wage have traditionally affected matching through the marital surplus. Our findings suggest they also may affect matching through the social interactions they facilitate, by changing the set of prospective mates with whom one interacts at lowest cost.
The team found differences in the marital age gap by education:
|Yrs. age gap||Husband w/o college||Husband w/ college|
|1 – -1||33.3%||39.2%|
As you can see, the largest number of marriages is between people the same age, but the distribution varies by educational attainment.
The researchers also found a relationship between age difference and physical attractiveness. The National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health represents data over four rounds of interviews with the same subjects, most recently in 2008. Fortuitously, it contains both a subjective rating of attractiveness by the interviewer, as well as BMI data. This feature is unique among data that include marital history statistics, and was highly consistent across the four waves of data.
Overall the estimates indicate that individuals married to differently-aged spouses are less attractive than those married to similarly aged spouses, with the possible exception of men married to older women.
From Table 9, the correlation between age difference and physical attractiveness:
|Yrs. age gap|
“Attractive” Rating Difference
|+2 to 4|
|-2 to -4|
|-5 or more|
The younger the male relative to his partner, the more likely he is to have been rated attractive. In contrast, the most attractive women are 2-4 years younger than their spouses. The strongest negative effect for attractiveness is women 5 years or more younger than their husbands. Additionally:
“The estimates suggest that women married to differently-aged husbands were higher BMI in high school than those married to similarly aged husbands.”
It turns out that the common complaint “all the good ones are taken” is painfully accurate for both men and women past a certain point. Using the average age at marriage as a rough guideline:
- You will marry at 27. Your husband will be 29.
- You will get engaged at 26, assuming a one-year engagement.
- You will date for two years before getting engaged.
- You will meet your future husband at age 24 if not sooner.
This scenario makes it extremely clear why your 20s are not just for fun. You should:
- Cultivate a social circle of college friends and work colleagues.
- Make a specific effort to meet new people, and introduce others to your friends as well.
- Find a guy a couple of years older and play for keeps.
This is not difficult – most people achieve this. But it does require awareness and an unwillingness to waste time in low quality relationships.