Marriage rates are on the decline in the United States and have been for the last few decades. Data offered by the U.S. Census show that nearly 70 percent of men and women were married in the 1950s, compared to about 50 percent in 2018—with a near 10 percent increase during the same time frame of men and women who report never being married.
There are a number of reasons for this demographic shift—for instance, delayed marriage, more long-term non-marital cohabitation, and perhaps less cultural emphasis on marriage. But might there be other reasons?
Why Aren't Women Getting Married?
New research identifies an interesting quirk in the marriage market that might explain declining rates of marriage (Lichter, Price, & Swigert, 2019). Taking an economic approach, the authors argue that there's a fundamental mismatch between what available men in the United States have to offer and what available women in the United States are willing to accept. Maybe, they propose, women aren't getting married because the highly desirable men are taken.
Focusing their analyses on single heterosexual women, the researchers used data from the American Community Survey (2008-2012; 2013-2017) to predict the likely characteristics of these women's husbands if they had husbands and then compared those characteristics to what's actually available in these single women's dating pool. More specifically, the researchers generated "synthetic spouses" for the single women in their sample by first matching them with demographically similar women (e.g., same race, education, military status, income) who happened to be married. The "synthetic spouses" were designed to reflect the characteristics of the husbands of the similar-married women. Thus—assuming women of similar demographics are looking for similar characteristics in their partners—this method offers a starting point for documenting the characteristics single women might be looking for in a partner.
The researchers then compared the "synthetic spouses" with the real and available men in the United States, and here's where things get interesting. These available men fell short.
Where Are the Marriageable Men?
So how bad is it? According to the study, the kind of men that single women likely would marry, if they married—i.e., the "synthetic spouses"—were not only 26 percent more likely to hold a job, and more highly educated, but they also had nearly a 55 percent higher income than what the available men in the U.S. actually make. In other words, from an economic standpoint, the dating pool lacks the kind of men that women might be particularly interested in attaching to, for the long-haul.
Additional analyses involved a matching process between single women and real available men nationwide, state-wide, or within a single woman's PUMA (public use micro-area data) to see if these women could, theoretically, find someone who matches the kind of men they would marry (i.e., someone like their synthetic spouse). In other words, how easy would it be for these single women to find desirable partners? This exercise extended their findings to include:
- Older women have an even smaller dating pool of economically desirable men than younger women, who would have a slightly easier time finding a suitable partner
- Well-educated women face more of a shortage of economically desirable men than lesser educated women
- Minority women, particularly Black women, have a heightened unlikelihood of finding a partner who is economically desirable.
- In general, it's harder to find an economically desirable man in one's own close geographic area than in the broader, nationwide comparison.
Adolescents today still report plans to marry (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2017) suggesting the consistent downward trend in marriage rates could reflect undesired singlehood, not necessarily choices to be single in the face of ample desirable options. Lichter and colleagues' (2019) research is compelling because it identifies a potential economic issue tied to sociodemographics that may be responsible for changes in marital rates. If the pool of marriageable men falls short of what women want, women might rather be single than settle.
Of note, the study offers a pattern and a potential explanation but does not show a clear cause-and-effect relationship in their modeling. Also, as much as we know that people tend to partner with similar others, we do not know the full extent to which the economic potential of men contributes to real-life dating decisions relative to other important factors (e.g., likability, kindness, good humor).
In a changing landscape wherein women are accessing education and delaying marriage more than ever, these findings become particularly intriguing. Will mismatches between the preferences of unmarried women and what unmarried men have to offer persist? Will the gap widen? Or are there cultural changes that would create a more balanced marriage market? Or, at the bigger level: maybe marriage isn't as culturally important as it once was?
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Lichter, D. T., Price, J. P., & Swigert, J. M. (2019). Mismatches in the Marriage Market. Journal of Marriage and Family. Advanced online publication.
Manning, W. D., Longmore, M. A., & Giordano,P. C. (2007). The changing institution of marriage: Adolescents’ expectation to cohabit and to marry. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 559–575.