Get On My Level

Z0024629Time has nearly perfected internet trolling in their article last month where “15 Guys Explain Why They Date Women Over 30.” It is a completely absurd article and the content doesn’t even need to be justified by engaging with it. In one particularly dumb passage, writer Anita Hamilton thinks that women might otherwise be at home on Fridays knitting tea cozies, but now that there are men out there who actually find something attractive about these old maids, they don’t need to give up on life once they turn 30!

But the fact of the matter is that these “older” women aren’t living or dying by how men think age affects their attractiveness. Women are more empowered than they have ever been before and age matters less. In fact, as women age and progress in their lives and careers, one simple marker like age is overshadowed by other potential accomplishments and characteristics. After decades of improvement to women’s economic opportunities and social power, they can’t be bothered to give into the trolling or the idea that they lose their value to men once they enter their third decade.

When surveyed, on average men find women in their 20s most attractive. As it happens, I entirely missed out on my golden era, having spent ten years in a relationship with one man from a month before I turned 20 to a month after I turned 30. (Oh the Alanis Morissette definition of irony.) Back on the market again after a decade, now one of these “older” women at age 30, I barely experienced what it’s like to be single in my prime. And then when I read about men’s age preferences along these terms, the fact of the matter is that I could not give less of a shit about what judgments men might make of me because of my age. I’m better at 30 than I’ve ever been before.

Of course, as a heterosexual woman, I want men to find me attractive. But I also know that it isn’t the 1800s and I have more power in the dating market than this article seems to think women have. Men don’t set all the terms anymore. I get to set the terms now because women have more bargaining power in partnerships than ever before. I have a burgeoning career as a writer and an economist with comfortable potential future earnings that I could support myself independently off of. I don’t spend (that many) Friday nights at home knitting tea cozies because I have friends I love and activities I enjoy more than sitting around waiting for a man. Because of shifting economic and social structures, I’m more empowered as a single woman than women in previous eras.

Economist Gary Becker first introduced economic concepts to marriage markets in his Theory of Marriage in 1974, putting forth the idea that laws of supply and demand can apply to relationships. While Becker often used economic theory to justify traditional gender roles, the assumptions that underly his conclusions have changed drastically. Some insights from marriages in the time when Becker was developing his Theory of Marriage and from now show that women have a lot more to offer men other than just their attractiveness and baby making abilities, giving a greater premium to women’s preferences over men’s in contemporary dating.

From 1970 to 2007, women’s share of family income grew from 4% to 22% and the portion of wives who are better educated than their husbands became greater than the portion of husbands better educated than their wives. Pew Social Trends acknowledge this as a complete gender role reversal in marriage. Women no longer gain the same economic advantages from marriages to men, and men have more to gain than ever before from marrying women. When marriage is more advantageous to men and not as advantageous to women as it used to be, the power in dating and marriage markets is reversed. Men are now the ones who are, or should be, trying to appeal to women’s preferences.

Becker made an intuitive point that people must be entering into a relationship, specifically marriage in his work, if it increases both their utility. Utility is the economic concept of well-being. While it might increase many men’s utility to date a woman in her 20s, because of the greater potential years of childbearing or just because they may lead simpler lives than same-age women and demand less of them, it might not increase the utility for a woman in her 20s to settle for an older man. There is an incentive for women to delay marriage, preferring to be in the dating market for longer. Married women suffer a pay penalty compared to their single counterparts. Because of this, women’s utility gains from early marriage are lower compared to men, who receive a pay premium from marriage. This could be part of the reason why women are delaying marriage until older age, allowing them to make wage gains and climb up the corporate ladder so that they can maintain those higher levels after potentially settling down.

Women’s economic empowerment has reversed the relative importance of preferences and utility gains from marriage between women and men. Women don’t need to stoop of men’s level, by settling down young or spending too much effort appeasing men’s unfair and unjustified preferences. Men need to get on our level. Women over 30 are better than they’ve ever been (and they are still getting better).

Of course there are still some men who are living under an old gender regime where they find women in their 20s the most attractive. But as I re-enter the market, I acknowledge my power in dating that is a virtue of my age after my 20s – my higher education, developing career, greater access to financial resources, and my overall improved self-confidence that comes with age. Becker was right about some things, but he may not have realized whose preferences might end up mattering more and the greater utility that women can gain from claiming their power in the dating market.

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Categories: Means of Reproduction, Means of Reproduction-1

5 replies

  1. I agree with everything you say. Women* no longer depend on men, no longer need to get hitched to attain material comfort or respectability. This is a good thing and deserves to be celebrated.

    But then you go from celebrating this advancement to criticizing men’s preferences as “unfair and unjustified”. What the-?

    Men’s sexual desires don’t need to be justified any more than women’s sexual desires have to be. Men’s preferences don’t have to be fair to women any more than women’s preferences have to be fair to men. Men who favor younger women don’t deserve to be dismissed as “living under an old gender regime” any more than women who favor tall, confident men. If your desires are formed by the patriarchal environment you grew up in, so what? You didn’t choose the culture you were born to. No-one (male or female) needs to get on anyone’s level.

    Deriding people for their preferences is deeply illiberal. Mocking the other sex for their desire is the kind of thing I’d expect to see on Return of Kings, not here.

    *To be more specific, upper-class women. Poor women have always worked.

  2. I find it troubling that feminist microeconomics is still “in bed” with Becker – despite the devastating criticism from other heterodox economics fields of the neoclassical assumptions about utility maximization and rational behavior. While its great to use existing tools to explore new questions, I wish there was an approach that started from a more realistic conception of human nature and motivations. This has gotten me thinking about what it would look like to extend Herbert Simon’s concept of bounded rationality and decision-making to questions of relationships (other than the employment relationship, which he does). It’s a bit too far outside my (macro) focus, but could be very fruitful. [I wonder if our mutual friend Pedro, who studies Simon, would have anything to say about this.]

    On the personal front, being 30+ is fabulous because the older you get, the more apparent it becomes that it is useless to worry about what other people think of you!

    • I agree about the problems of engaging with Becker, but like how you can’t talk about power in economics without acknowledging Marx, you can’t talk about marriage and relationships in economics without acknowledging Becker. The double-duty of the heterodox economist is always to talk about classical and neoclassical foundations as a jumping off point for new ways to do economic thinking. This discussion will continue and I can explore how other ways of thinking about economics apply to dating, love, and marriage!

      • What about with starting with Engels? He discusses power relations in marriage – long before Becker – and there is no mention of utility functions! I see the duty of heterodox economics to analyze, but often reject, neoclassical economics in order to create new coherent analysis… Otherwise we’re just reinforcing the intellectual dominance of their bad ideas by tweaking the model so that it suits our political aims.

  3. Gawker reported, this summer, that Time ranks its writers based on, “beneficial to advertisers”. Prior to its outing, I recognized the magazine was ant-labor and I stopped my subscription, of 30 years. Today, Huffpo reports that Time, listed for deletion, the word “feminism” (in a poll). A commenter added to the article, “First teachers, now feminism -looks like Time has its own war on women”. It’s time to contact our libraries and tell them the magazine belongs in the category of corporate promotion like, a Subaru pamphlet that talks about travel destinations, while selling cars or, worse, a propaganda rag. Public money shouldn’t be wasted on it.

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