Dr. Griskevicius speaking on the mating game. The economic consequences are big. (source)
The mate market isn’t what it used to be. As late as the mid-1970s, single women outnumbered single men at all reproductive ages. A reversal then took place throughout the Western world. The “operational sex ratio” slipped from male scarcity to parity and then to a male surplus by the late 1980s. Why? The immediate reason was the large number of divorced male baby-boomers reentering the mate market … and competing for a smaller number of female baby-busters (Ni Bhrolchain & Sigle-Rushton, 2005; Pedersen, 1991).
Yet behind this immediate reason stood two longer-term causes. First, divorce had become much easier. Men were now freer to act on an unconscious command that all men are born with: Look for a younger wife if your current one no longer looks fertile … assuming of course you’ve managed to survive into your fifth decade of life.
This leads us to the second cause. By the late 20th century, male mortality had greatly declined. More men were now living throughout the entire reproductive age bracket. Keep in mind that around 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. In the past, this sex ratio balanced out within the first few years of life because of higher mortality among male infants. By the 1980s, it wasn’t balancing out until the mid-40s or even later.
Will the operational sex ratio return to normal in the future? No, but it may stop getting worse. The trend toward male longevity seems to have almost maxed out for all reproductive ages. And fewer older men will be reentering the mate market—the baby boomers are getting a bit old for that sort of thing. But then we’ll probably also see more polygyny of the non-serial kind. Simultaneous polygyny is hard to measure, since it’s illegal, but it seems to be a growing phenomenon. The incidence of gonorrhea and chlamydial infection is now higher in women than in men, an indication that the population of promiscuous individuals is disproportionately female (Miller et al., 2004).
Even if we ignore unofficial polygyny, the “official” ratio of single men to single women shows no signs of declining, even at older ages (Soma, 2008). In Germany, single men now outnumber single women up to the age of 60 (Glowsky, 2007). To make a long story short, young nubile women are a limited resource. The more you deregulate the marriage market and the more you reduce male mortality, the fewer of them there’ll be to go around.
And the consequences?
As men become increasingly outnumbered on the mate market, what will be the consequences? Until recently, research has focused on the social effects. Permanently single men have less of a stake in maintaining the status quo and tend to be drawn to revolutionary movements of one sort or another (Hudson & Den Boer, 2002).
Now it appears that there are also economic consequences:
Findings show that male-biased sex ratios (an abundance of men) lead men to discount the future and desire immediate rewards. Male-biased sex ratios decreased men’s desire to save for the future and increased their willingness to incur debt for immediate expenditures. Sex ratio appears to influence behavior by increasing the intensity of same-sex competition for mates. Accordingly, a scarcity of women led people to expect men to spend more money during courtship, such as by paying more for engagement rings. (Griskevicius et al, 2012)
In the above study, the operational sex ratio (ratio of adult unmarried men to adult unmarried women) was compared to the number of credit cards owned and the amount of consumer debt for 134 American cities. Both indices significantly correlated with the operational sex ratio. By way of example, the authors point to two cities in Georgia:
Macon, Georgia, and Columbus, Georgia, are two cities in the southeastern United States that are less than a hundred miles apart. Both cities share a similar historical heritage and economic climate. Despite these similarities, the residents of each city have drastically different spending habits: The average consumer debt of people living in Columbus is an astounding 2.7 standard deviations higher than that of people living in Macon—a difference of $3,479 per consumer […]
We suggest that this difference in debt might be linked to an often overlooked difference between the two cities: the ratio of single adult men to women in each area. Whereas in Macon there are only 0.78 single men for every woman, in Columbus there are 1.18 single men for every woman. (Griskevicius et al, 2012)
The United States, like most of the Western world, is moving from a dowry culture to a brideprice culture (Sailer, 2008). Single men now have to pay to get a wife, and the price is getting steeper.
But this change isn’t just a matter of “Who pays the money?” It’s also “How is it spent?” A dowry is an investment in the future. It often takes the form of a down-payment by the bride’s family on the newlyweds’ home. In contrast, a bride price usually goes toward immediate consumption. A single man has to spend more on dating, which itself is becoming a longer, multiyear process. He’ll be expected to pay off his bride’s credit card debt. And he’ll have to spend more on the wedding.
The difference between dowry and bride price reflects a difference in mate-choice criteria. Whereas men judge women on the basis of youth and perceived fertility, women judge men on the basis of perceived social and economic status. A shift towards bride price thus compels men to boost their image by spending more now and leaving less for the future.
There is a widespread belief that consumers will save and pay off their debts if offered the right economic incentives, i.e., higher interest rates, tax deductions, etc. This belief ignores the changes that have occurred to the dynamics of mating over the last few decades. Men will keep on going heavily into debt because that’s the price of getting a mate. Women will continue to borrow beyond their means, knowing that they can convert their debt burden into bride price.
Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61
Griskevicius, V., J.M. Tybur, J.M. Ackerman, A.W. Delton, T.E. Robertson, & A.E. White. (2012). The financial consequences of too many men: Sex ratio effects on saving, borrowing, and spending, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(1), 69-80.
Hudson, V.M., & A. Den Boer. (2002). A surplus of men, a deficit of peace. Security and sex ratios in Asia’s largest states, International Security, 26, 5-38.
Miller, W.C., C.A. Ford, M. Morris, M.S. Handcock, J.L. Schmitz, M.M. Hobbs, M.S. Cohen, K.M. Harris, & J.R. Udry. (2009). Prevalence of chlamydial and gonococcal infections among young adults in the United States, Journal of the American Medical Association, 291, 2229-2236.
Ni Bhrolchain, M. & W. Sigle-Rushton. (2005). Partner supply in Britain and the U.S. Estimates and gender contrasts, Population, 60, 37-64.
Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior, Human Nature, 2, 271-291.
Soma. (2008). The new interactive singles map http://www.xoxosoma.com/singles/