Thursday, September 3, 2009

Young men in a sellers market

Except for frontier areas, single women used to outnumbered single men on the American marriage market. This situation has reversed since the late 1970s and early 1980s because of falling male mortality and the rising numbers of older men divorcing and remarrying (Pedersen, 1991). Similar reversals have occurred throughout the Western world.

In this new environment, more women are hesitating to commit, knowing that the penalty of being ‘left on the shelf’ is much less than before. Many, in fact, are playing the market and postponing marriage as late as possible. One result is a rising age of first marriage—almost 30 in most Western countries.

Because people are getting married later, the ratio of single men to single women under 30 looks almost balanced. This near-parity has lulled some writers, like Glowsky (2007), into thinking that intense competition for women is a problem only for middle-aged men. Actually, single men under 30 face even fiercer competition. Using age-preference data, Ni Bhrolchain and Sigle-Rushton (2005, pp. 44, 46) have estimated that two single men are competing for each single woman at the youngest ages:

… Among men, average partner supply is 0.4 at age 17, reaches and goes above 1.0 at around 30 in the US and at 45 in England and Wales (though also, briefly, at age 30) and then rises to 2.0 (US) and 1.6 (E&W) by age 60. On these estimates, a 50-year-old American man had around the same number of potential partners as an American woman of 20 in 1990 ....

… In pure demographic terms, then, and taking these figures at face value, men and women of the same age encounter quite dissimilar levels of partner supply at most ages. In 1990-91, average availability for women far exceeds that for men at younger ages and the reverse is true at older ages. In both countries [United States and Great Britain] in 1990-91, unmarried women aged 20-24 had between 34% and 163% more potential partners on average than did men, and those aged 25-29 between 8% and 28% more.

It might be argued that these estimates overstate the gender imbalance. After all, some young men are uninterested in female companionship because they’re asexual, homosexual, or psychologically immature. This objection was tested by Ni Bhrolchain and Sigle-Rushton (2005, p. 53) through a survey of dating agency clients:

If men experience partner shortages at the prime ages of male marriage, we would expect to find young men over-represented in the dating agency client population. This is indeed the case. Between ages 21 and 40 the age-specific sex ratio among Dateline clients is between 1.4 and 2.6, compared with sex ratios of between 1.1 and 1.3 among the unmarried in England and Wales in 1996.

The new ‘seller’s market’ contrasts with what young men used to face as recently as the early 1970s. Yet this change in fortune has triggered few alarm bells among the commentariat. How come? One reason is that many people blame the sexual revolution of the 1960s on that era’s low ratio of single men to single women. The argument is that a surplus of single women makes men sexually irresponsible. To ensure stable families, we therefore need a surplus of single men. Such a surplus would not make women sexually irresponsible, since women are naturally inclined to form stable, long-lasting relationships.

This view was notably advanced by Pedersen (1991). He predicted that the recent shift to a higher sex ratio among singles would mean less divorce, less illegitimacy, less marital instability, higher birth rates, and greater commitment by men to getting an education and pursuing a career. These presumed benefits caused many, particularly on the political right, to see the new marriage market as a godsend. As recently as 2004 the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece that praised the wife shortage and its beneficial influence on the American family (Wilson, 2004).

There is another reason for the complacency of the commentariat. Singleness is a topic where older women do most of the talking and writing. For them, the man shortage is what really matters.

That the adverse marriage market position of young men has been overlooked may be due to the traditional tendency in demography to examine mainly female marriage and partnership. One author pointed to the marriage market difficulties of older women as being the “real” marriage squeeze (Veevers 1988), but in doing so ignored the partner shortages experienced by young men — an issue of greater demographic significance since it occurs at and before the prime ages of male marriage. Davis and van den Oever (1982) suggest that the surplus of unmarried men at young ages is of little importance since most will ultimately marry. (Ni Bhrolchain & Sigle-Rushton, 2005, pp. 59)

From a broader societal viewpoint, we should worry more about the lack of wives for younger men under 35 than about the lack of husbands for older women over 45. The latter are no longer able to have children and are simply seeking companionship. In contrast, the former risk being denied not only companionship but also a role in reproduction.


Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61

Ni Bhrolchain, M. & W. Sigle-Rushton. (2005). Partner supply in Britain and the U.S. Estimates and gender contrasts, Population, 60, 37-64.

Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior, Human Nature, 2, 271-291.

Wilson, J.Q. (2004). Sex Matters. Will too many boys make China and India aggressive militarily? The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Tod said...

Are the forces that produced the shortage close to equilibrium or do you think that it will get much worse?

Peter Frost said...


The gender imbalance will probably stabilize at two men for every woman at the youngest ages, with parity somewhere in the mid-40s.

On the one hand, not as many older men will be returning to the marriage market. The baby boom bulge is getting too old to have much effect on the mating choices of young women.

On the other hand, there will probably be more concurrent polygny. This phenomenon is hard to measure, but it seems to be why STDs have become more prevalent among women than among men. There are more women 'pairing' with multipartner males than there are men 'pairing' with multipartner females.

There will also be further reductions in male mortality, but the effect on the marriage market will be modest.

Null-A said...

It seems to me that things are now little different to what they were a couple of hundred years ago, then.

At that time, many women died in childbirth, leading to a high sex ratio in the years from late teens to the forties or so.

Then there huge improvements in the medical care offered to pregnant and birthing women, swinging the sex ratio back below 1.

Now, of course, we have reduced infant mortality even further, swinging the sex ratio back above 1 for a greater range of ages.

However, fundamentally, given female preferences, the operational sex ratio is still low.

Null-A said...

From a broader societal viewpoint, we should worry more about the lack of wives for younger men under 35 than about the lack of husbands for older women over 45.

Why? Will the world end if we don't?

Women complain more than men do, but I suggest that we don't have to worry about either group.

Peter Frost said...


"Will the world end if we don't?"

Of course not. Life will go on. Life went on in the Gulag Archipelago and in the death camps.

But why not aim for something better?

Anonymous said...

Peter said:

"Will the world end if we don't?"

Of course not. Life will go on. Life went on in the Gulag Archipelago and in the death camps.

Hmmm, are you really claiming that a high sex ratio (caused because of medical progress) is morally equivalent to the Gulags and the death camps?

But why not aim for something better?

Now there speaks someone who has forgotten about unintended consequences.

Better for who? Who gets to pay for achieving something better? What possibilities will there be for some people to manipulate the end result in their favor?

Peter Frost said...

"Hmmm, are you really claiming that a high sex ratio (caused because of medical progress) is morally equivalent to the Gulags and the death camps?"

I'm saying that a situation can be undesirable even though it isn't the end of the world.

The current marriage market leads to a waste of human potential, all the more so because the losers tend to be the most productive and conscientious men--the ones who actually keep our society running.

A recent article in International Security argued that 'young adult sex ratios of approximately 120 and above are inherently unstable', i.e., the permanent bachelors become a destabilizing force that leads to external war or internal strife.

At the youngest ages, we already have a ratio of 2 to 1. Perhaps that kind of gender imbalance is manageable, but the price of keeping the lid on the pressure cooker will be high.

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