Why Isn’t Anyone Getting Married? Hookup Culture, or Just College Math?

For the last ten years or so pundits have complained about the dreaded hookup culture, which is hurting marriage. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that the percent of American households headed by married people fell to 50.5 percent in 2012. The high was 72 percent in 1960. And we’re getting married a lot later. The average age of first marriage in the United States is 29 for men. It was just 22 in 1960.

The problem, so the church lady pundits tell us, is that a degenerate civilization defined by permissive values, available alcohol, and “if it feels good, do it” sexual values inherited from the 60s, has given us a world where young professionals have a hard time settling down and committing to any one person because they’re so selfish and morally confused.

And its become worse due to the proliferation of phone apps in dating, which allow us all to just swipe right if someone doesn’t look attractive enough.

Not at all, says Jon Birger at the Washington Post. This has nothing to do with cultural values, and everything to do with simple math. There are just more single men than there are women, so women aren’t in a position to be demanding that men marry them. As he writes:

In 2012, 34 percent more women than men graduated from American colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education expects this gap to reach 47 percent by 2023. The imbalance has spilled over into the post-college dating scene. According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are now 5.5 million college-educated women in the United States between the ages of 22 and 29 vs. 4.1 million such men. In other words, the dating pool for straight, millennial, college graduates has four women for every three men. No wonder some men are in no rush to settle down and more women are giving up on what used to be called “playing hard to get.”

LotsOfFish

These demographics represent the true dating apocalypse, as stacks of social science show how dating and mating behavior is influenced by prevailing sex ratios. When there are plenty of marriageable men, dating culture emphasizes courtship and romance, and men generally must earn more to attract a wife. But when gender ratios skew toward women, as they do today among college grads, the dating culture becomes more sexualized. The good news, at least according to the work of psychologists and sex-ratio pioneers Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord, is that people tend to have better sex when ratios skew female. The downside? Women frequently wind up being treated as sex objects, and men are more inclined to exercise the option to delay marriage and play the field.

It’s not the first time we’ve made the mistake of confusing technology with demographics to explain dating trends. Birger points out that in the 1920s pundits in Europe and the U.S. bemoaned that the automobile was leading to sexual promiscuity.

Well, no. What had happened in the 1920s was that a huge swath of men had been killed off in the First World War and there simply weren’t enough of them around for women to control the dating market. And so, like today, people had better sex but women ended up being treated as sex objects.

It’s not exactly the same, of course. There are plenty of eligible men available across America. It’s just that there are more women among professional, college-educated adults. And that means professional women can either date plumbers and mechanics or they can compete with other professional women to seek the attention of guys with 100 other women available on phone apps, guys who might be willing to settle down only when they’re in their late 30s.

Don’t blame the technology; it’s widespread higher education that’s caused this to happen. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer