Are Women’s Economic Gains Also Their Romantic Losses?

December 21, 2011 by Justin Lehmiller

“American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity.” [1]

In a provocative piece entitled “All the Single Ladies” in a recent issue of The Atlantic, author Kate Bolick argues that the financial and educational gains made by women in the past few years (coupled with corresponding financial and educational losses among men) are altering the dating and mating marketplace. Bolick suggests that successful women are now confronted with a growing scarcity of good quality men, which is increasingly leading women to go it alone. Bolick’s claims are certainly provocative and intriguing, but before we draw too many conclusions, we should give these ideas a closer look.

First, I do not dispute Bolick’s general assertion that women are moving forward economically while men are moving back. Government statistics indicate that women now make up a small majority of the overall workforce, they hold more management positions, and they take home a larger share of all Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees awarded. This is not to say that the workplace has tilted away from men entirely—overall, men’s earnings are still higher (specifically women earned 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2008) and they continue to hold a commanding share of the most powerful corporate and political positions. The once impossibly large gender gap has thus narrowed considerably, but it is not yet a completely level playing field.

So what do these changes mean for our romantic lives? Historically, women have been attracted to men with greater status and wealth. Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that this preference evolved because it was “adaptive” in the sense that it paired women with partners who have the resources to help support them and any children they bear [2]. However, in the modern world, men’s ability to “bring home the bacon” is diminishing and women now have the potential to supply the resources needed to take care of themselves and their children all on their own. According to Bolick, men who lack earning potential are not “marriageable” by traditional standards, which is reducing the number of eligible bachelors. She argues that women are adapting to this scarcity of good quality men by embracing singlehood and seeking fulfillment in platonic relationships with other women.

As support for this idea, Bolick cites the fact that the economic gains recently made by women have been accompanied by a decrease in marriage rates. In fact, the latest U.S. census data indicate that marriages have fallen to a record low. However, we must keep in mind that just because two variables are correlated does not necessarily mean that one is causing the other. The declining marriage rate may have nothing to do with women’s finances at all and everything to do with a huge number of social and cultural shifts that have taken place in the past few decades (e.g., people are waiting until they are much older to marry and alternatives to marriage, such as cohabitation, have become more socially accepted). Bolick presents a lot of anecdotal and correlational evidence to support her point, but there is no definitive evidence that women’s economic gains are causing them to reevaluate marriage. In fact, existing research suggests that most women still hold a positive view of marriage [3], and the vast majority of women are predicted to marry during the course of their lives (specifically, demographers predict that up to 90% of American women will eventually marry) [4].

Also, even if more women are shunning marriage, it does not mean that they are giving up on the idea of pursuing long-term, committed relationships altogether. Bolick is correct in noting that there are more singles among us than ever before. In fact, 50% of adults are currently categorized in census data as “single.” However, “single” does not necessarily mean “uncoupled.” Most of these “single” people are not single in the truest sense of the word (i.e., being completely, romantically unattached). A very large number of “single” people are in relationships—they just are not legally married. Thus, although both men and women are delaying marriage longer than ever before (and some are opting never to get married), it does not seem to be the case that people are giving up on relationships and resigning themselves to an uncoupled life. If you don’t believe me, just ask the people who founded eHarmony and how their bottom line is looking.

Of course, I am talking about general trends here and some people’s personal experiences may not bear this out. There is and always will be huge individual variability in people’s relationship experiences, and for this reason, it is unwise to pay too much attention to any one case.

In short, although the past few decades have brought a sea change in the way that wealth is distributed across genders, it is far from clear that the financial gains of women have translated to lost opportunities for love.

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[1] Bolick, K. (2011, November). All the single ladies. The Atlantic.

[2] Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

[3] Thorton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 1009-1037.

[4] Goldstein, J. R., & Kenny, C. T. (2001). Marriage delayed or forgone? New cohort forecasts of first marriage for U.S. women. American Sociological Review, 66, 505-519.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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