A Dwindling Dating Pool

Commentators have noticed for some time now the seeming dearth of “marriageable” men, i.e. the ones with education, employment, and income comparable to women’s. Many factors have been blamed for this trend—lack of economic opportunity, higher rates of female education, a crunched labor market. Now, researchers from Cornell, Brigham Young, and South Utah Universities have joined together for a systematic study of this phenomenon in America.

“Recent declines in U.S. marriage are reflected both in delayed marriage and increases in permanent singlehood, punctuated by intermittent spells of nonmarital cohabitation,” open the researchers. Whether due to differences in education, a decline in economic prospects, or racial disparities, “[y]oung women seemingly face shortages of demographically similar men to marry.” And yet, all studies indicate that marriage remains a top priority for most young people. There is a gap between intentions and reality, which the researchers seek to understand. “Our overall goal,” they summarize, “is largely descriptive: to appropriately characterize U.S. marriage market conditions for currently unmarried women with different sociodemographic profiles.” They do this with two specific objectives. First, the researchers “use data imputation methods to infer what the sociodemographic characteristics of each woman’s spouse would be if they married a man with similar characteristics to the husbands of comparable women.” In other words, they set up a group of “synethic spouses.” Second, they “compare the distribution of characteristics of synthetic husbands with the distribution of all unmarried men in our sample” to determine how many women were left without a suitable partner. Their discussion focuses on two groups specifically: Poorly educated or low-income women, and highly educated women, both of whom fare the worst on the marriage market. (The women in the middle of the spectrum seem to fare better.)

To conduct their analysis, the researchers use five-year data samples from the American Community Survey, covering the periods 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, then split this data into four groups based on sex and marital status (males and females, married and  unmarried). They do not consider same-sex couples, and they assign cohabiting couples into the “unmarried” category instead of the “married” category, which they say reflects cohabitation’s increasingly unstable nature. They then seek to assess “the characteristics of the spouse to whom the unmarried women in our sample would likely be married, assuming they exhibit the same mate selection patterns as currently married women.” The researchers estimate the “synthetic spouse” of each unmarried woman, then compare the characteristics of the synthetic spouse with the characteristics of the actual unmarried men in their sample.

The results are grim, for unmarried women nationwide. “The synthetic spouses had an average income that was about 55% higher ($53,000 vs. $35,000), were 26% more likely to be employed (87% vs. 70%), and were 18% more likely to have a college degree (29% vs. 25%) than the actual unmarried men who were available in the United States. These estimates suggest large differences in the demand and supply of unmarried men with certain characteristics.” In the data for actual unmarried men, “there was an excess supply of men with incomes less than $20,000 (with a shortage of men with incomes greater than $40,000) as well as a marriage market mismatch in education—too many men had only a high school degree and too few had a college or graduate degree.” The researchers also added that, encouragingly, men who married their child’s mother tended to see an income uptick, and that their findings may not accurately represent this reality. Younger and less-educated women had an easier time finding husbands than did older or more-educated women. These findings were much more stark for racial minorities, who “were significantly less likely to find suitable marital partners, regardless of their education or income levels.”

The researchers also understand that marriage doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and thus sought to take geographic location into account. When requiring that marriages take place within PUMAs (Public Use Microdata Areas), the odds of finding good husbands get even lower. “For example,” they report, “a 10% increase in a woman’s age was associated with a 2.42 percentage point decrease in likelihood of finding a match nationwide. When we required all matches to occur with the same PUMA, a 10% increase in women’s age correlated with a 15.32 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of finding a suitable match.” 

The researchers close by affirming that yes, claims that marriageable men are hard to find are founded in the research, summarizing, “Our analyses provide clear evidence of an excess supply of men with low income and education and, conversely, shortages of economically attractive unmarried men (with at least a bachelor’s degree and higher levels of income) for women to marry.” They suggest that “promoting good jobs” may thus be more important than promoting marriage education courses as a way to stimulate marriage. They also wonder if, in response to this new trend, women may start considering “marrying down” instead of “marrying up,” but point out that this has historically not been the practice. 

Whatever the solution, the problem is real. Whatever the driving forces, being a single woman on the marriage market these days is difficult.

(Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price, and Jeffrey M. Swigert, “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” Journal of Marriage and Family [2019], doi: 10.1111/jomf.12603)