Just before I entered college, a study came out about the likelihood of women marrying at various ages. The study appeared in 1985 and was popularized by Newsweek and others in 1986. It's hard to remember in 2015 that Newsweek was widely read and relatively well respected back then. The takeaway by mainstream media was this (paraphrased):
A woman over age 40 has a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of getting married.
Despite the fact that those odds (less than 3%) and the comparison were prima facie ridiculous, the report's conclusions were cited far and wide, even long after the statistical basis was shown to be flawed—not to mention people's own powers of observation.
The study fed into a modern feedback loop, a sort of backlash against women being able to navigate their entire adult lives without the input of nor money from men: that an eligible male scarcity exists, and that if you don't settle down (really, if you don't settle for less), you will be the poor spinster woman left standing when the musical chairs' music stops. You don't want that.
This is the same story told when the term spinster was in common parlance, but it mutates to fit the circumstances. In 1980s, being 40 was apparently so far over the hill, you'd be more likely to be killed by a terrorist. In the mid-2010s, it's a different tactic, but the same purpose.
That Was Then
Let's break down the assumptions in 1985:
- Being married is an end-goal state for women: it's desirable, and thus sooner is better.
- Women can only marry men.
- A woman on her own is incomplete.
- Somehow, despite a relatively even gender division in America, there would be enormously fewer eligible men relative to eligible women at 40, even though the death rate division between genders doesn't pick up until further in life.
In fact, the study's widely quoted statistic was about university-educated women; it reflected an odd demographic bulge related to women typically marrying slightly older men and the Baby Boom; and there was no basis whatsoever for the killed-by-terrorism figure, which was incredibly tiny in 1985 and today. Among all women at 40, the odds were in the 20-percent range, while the sub-3-percent figure cited for women who had attended college was considered incorrect, because the sample size in the study was too small to produce a valid result.
The study didn't include cohabitation, which was already a significant trend in the 1980s and substantially more so today. Because women couldn't marry women, it excluded some portion of the population there, too. Surveys and studies indicate about 3 to 4 percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, but the ratio of gay and bisexual men to lesbian and bisexual women is something like 3:1. (Those numbers may understate people's actual orientations and desires, too.)
Newsweek's inaccurate restating and framing of a flawed fact became part of common culture and parlance. The message: "Marry sooner, ladies, and settle for less, otherwise you'll grow old alone."
Which makes no sense. There are certainly some number of women who, at age 40 and beyond, would like to be married or would have liked to have been who cannot find a mate or at all one that is suitable. If not suitable, then perhaps settling would have been or remains the only strategy.
But marrying earlier reduces the available number of potential mates for those later. Thus, at some level, the notion is get yours while the getting is good, because you don't want to be too picky.
It enforces the notion of a scarcity of men, which benefits men in aiding their choice of a partner for relationships.
This Is Now
In 2015, people have ostensibly and enormously more choices in their lives. With marriage equality upheld as constitutional, this might marginally increase marriage as an institution to which more people want to become part of. Fewer people get married, and a good percentage never plan to, according to this Pew research. (That doesn't factor in people who want relationships or a long-term partnership, of course.)
This has led to a new spinster narrative emerging around women and higher education: more women than men enroll in college, complete some of it, and obtain degrees. This new story is being told in terms of dating (at least at this phase), not marriage, but it looks to research (from Pew and many other sources) that women prefer men with similar education and a steady job. That Pew study above found women who have never married at the time of the survey prefer to a high degree to marry men with steady employment and to a lesser extent with a similar education.
With current trends, women will have an ever-smaller pool of men with similar educations to draw upon. Men without a college education in particular earn less than men with a degree, and have less steady employment. One author has produced a book that focuses on dating, not marriage, and this educational mismatch, which varies quite a lot across cities and colleges.
I was at first somewhat contemptuous of the concept of the book, which seemed to be telling men how good they have it—if they have a college degree. I've read more, though, and it's clear he's also concerned about men with less education, as they are frankly unappealing to many potential opposite-sex mates.
This story from earlier in the year in the New York Times about how health care is a path to the middle class in rural communities had a striking account of a marriage in the middle, between a nurse and a pipe fitter:
Mr. Waugh has talked about trying college again; he dropped out twice in the past. At one point, his wife even filled out application papers for him to jump-start his re-enrollment, but he did not pursue class work.
“My philosophy is he is lazy,” Ms. Waugh said, standing in the hospital’s white hallway. “That’s what makes me so mad.”
But later this year, when her classes and other course work are finished, Ms. Waugh will qualify as a nurse practitioner, a job that she expects will allow her to earn at least 50 percent more than her current salary. And she will be prepared, she believes, for almost anything to come.
“I knew if I was a nurse I could be self-sufficient,” she said, “and wouldn’t have to rely on anyone to take care of me.”
You hardly have to read between the lines to see what's coming in Ms. Waugh's life.
But the marketing for his book and the general coverage of this educational mismatch over the last few years in media is that women have less choice—scarcity of ostensibly desirable partners afflicts women more than men. The conclusion is that men don't have to be as committed, that it contributes to hookup culture (with the implication often that that's bad), and that women are at a disadvantage.
Thus, the message to women with a college degree who date and marry men is you'll have to settle for anything, even one-night stands, because the men you want are in a buyers' market, and they don't have to grow up and show commitment. Sexual freedom is characterized as a penalty instead of an option, one in which men hold the cards because they are scarce, even though that's not the case in the sexual marketplace.
Less-educated women ostensibly have much more choice—more men in their same-education pool—though with less education comes less earning power and freedom, too.
I suspect we'll see an evolution of more modes of living in which women in this scarcity model find ways of supporting each other, whether in or out of romantic relationships.
There's no grand conspiracy that manufactures this. It's like the patriarchal immune system spitting out antibodies to try to clamp down on systemic change. No one person or organization or movement is behind this. But it has the same end, however it comes about: Women, incomplete without men; many men, even though "outcompeted," can avoid commitment, and have their pick of women. It's not at all unclear who this narrative benefits.
Given that men dominate the media landscape, and have a high predominance in editorial positions, stories on this topic are often going to reflect both the editor assigning and the writer producing it, who will generalize from their lived experience, which isn't per se inaccurate, but doesn't typically stretch in these kinds of stories beyond a prevailing narrative. A counter-narrative with nuance that doesn't implicitly shame women who reject the scarcity theme is unlikely to emerge broadly.