America is facing a significant shortage of highly educated “economically attractive” unmarried men who earn at least $53,000 and have a college degree. And the situation could result in unmarried women remaining unmarried or marrying less well-suited partners, a study says.
That’s the conclusion reached by researchers Daniel T. Lichter of Cornell University, Joseph P. Price of Brigham Young University, and Jeffrey M. Swigert of Southern Utah University in their study, Mismatches in the Marriage Market, published this month in the Journal of Family and Marriage.
The results of the study were based on comparisons between real data on unmarried men and a synthetic profile of the ideal husband that the average unmarried woman desired, created from marriage data from 2008 to 2012 and 2013 to 2017 recorded in the American Community Survey.
“These synthetic husbands have an average income that is about 58% higher than actual unmarried men who are currently available to unmarried women. They also are 30% more likely to be employed (90% vs. 70%) and 19% more likely to have a college degree (30% vs. 25%),” the study says.
“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. One implication is that promoting good jobs may ultimately be the best marriage promotion policy rather than marriage education courses that teach new relationship skills,” the researchers conclude.
In an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday, Price explained that the disparity between the characteristics unmarried women are looking for in a life partner and their available choices in reality have created “a structural mismatch” starkly highlighted in their research.
“The important contribution that our paper made was just to document the structural mismatch and the kind of men on average that women are looking for and the kind of men that are currently available for them," Price said. "So our best guess among the unmarried women in our sample, they are hoping to marry someone whose average income is $53,000, but if you look at the average income among the potential partners they can choose from, it's about $35,000. So this $18,000 gap creates a bit of a structural mismatch.”
Challenge of minority women
While all unmarried women face the challenge of finding suitable marriage partners, the study highlights that this challenge is particularly acute for minority women and black women especially. Unmarried Women from both low socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those with high socioeconomic status also have an especially hard time finding suitable partners.
“High rates of incarceration and substantial out-marriage to white women, especially among black men, have also left many minority women without marital partners. The fact that women’s educational levels now exceed men’s further implies that young women—by necessity—are less financially dependent on husbands than in the past and that educational hypogamy has become more commonplace,” the study says.
Among Christian women and those of other faiths where women are expected to marry in order to pursue intimate relationships, Price said there might have to be a cultural shift from hypergamy — where women tend to marry up — to one of hypogamy — where they marry below their standards.
“Hypergamy is this pattern we observe in data in which women tend to marry men with a higher level of education. And given that women now constitute about 60 percent of the college degrees, what you’ll probably start to see in faith communities is an erosion of the hypergamy norm, in which case women are OK marrying a husband who has less education than her. That’s one solution to the problem within a faith community,” Price said.
When asked about men who have invested in trade schools to acquire skills such as plumbing or carpentry, Price noted that that alternative route is also a solution for unmarried men to increase their stock, but the current data show unmarried women have a stronger preference for men with college degrees.
“I think that’s another solution too. It’s kind of a renewal of the dignity of work, which is that someone who has a skill, has a trade, and is able to work hard will be able to support a family even if they do not have a college degree,” he said.
A long-term response to improve the marriage prospects of the current crop of economically and educationally undesirable single men is to change the culture.
“We might have to change that norm, where the potential spouses actually can make a living through these other routes. Those are the alternative pathways to having a good life and a steady income,” he says.
Changing the culture
While alternative solutions to help single men lift their income so that they are more in line with the current desired spouses of unmarried women, changing the culture from hypergamy to one of hypogamy will be a lot more difficult.
“I don’t know how you change the norm — that you can have a happy marriage and a successful marriage with someone who is earning much less than you’re hoping to find. I don’t have a solution to that,” he says.
When asked what advice he would give to Christians facing this situation, Price said marriage can sometimes help men improve their status in life.
“I guess on a personal level I would say that marriage changes people in positive ways and it’s quite possible that, over time in a strong marriage, both the husband and wife will grow in their skills and talents,” he said.
There are men, he explained, “who through marriage have been able to improve their prospects at work, seek more education or seek additional training, try to get those promotions. Try to earn more.
“What we’re seeing is that the unmarried men, as they are right now, we can’t know for sure what their potential is going to be if they were in a lasting and committed marriage,” Price noted.
Not many women appear willing to budge on their standard, however, so Price suggested that churches can play a more integral role in helping men improve their prospects as potential partners for the crop of ambitious women.
“I think we have to take more seriously the charge as a faith community to encourage our young men to get the education, get the training they need to be successful in a career so they can be in a position to support a family and be attractive as a potential partner in a marriage,” he said.
In The Coming Divorce Decline, published last September, University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen shows that better educated women 44 years old and younger tended to have more lasting marriages than their older counterparts because they were more selective in their choice of partners. He also noted that this selectivity has resulted in marriage becoming rarer and reflective of social inequality.
“Marriage is become more selective, and more stable, even as attitudes toward divorce are becoming more permissive, and cohabitation has grown less stable. The U.S. is progressing toward a system in which marriage is rarer, and more stable, than it was in the past, representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality,” Cohen notes in his analysis.
“Over the last decade, newly married women have become more likely to be in their first marriages, more likely to have bachelor's degrees or higher education, less likely to be under age 25, and less likely to have grown children in the household — all of which suggests falling risk of divorce,” he continues.
In discussing the trend with Bloomberg, Cohen explained that marriage today is becoming more of an “achievement of status” for those who choose it.
“Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing,” Cohen said.
“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, told Bloomberg in response to Cohen’s analysis. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”
Many poorer and less educated Americans are often in cohabiting relationships with children. Those relationships are seen as less stable.
A study conducted in 2016 by Barna shows that a majority of Americans now believe in cohabitation due to pressures like shifting gender roles and expectations, the delay of marriage, and a secularizing culture.