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How Much Does Age Matter When You're Looking for a Mate?

I tell my students that a good writer always keeps their audience in mind, and that when they write a paper in my class that audience is me. So, I have to wonder what was going through the head of one of my students last week when he submitted a paper with the line: "A woman over the age of forty looking for a mate is called a 'cougar.'" Besides the fact that he doesn't seem to have that definition quite right (and that the remark was random and unrelated to his topic) this comment did make me think about age and relationships. My own experience is that age matters and the evidence suggest that when it comes to marital stability differences in age can have large effects.

Those of you who have been reading Dollars and Sex for a while know that I am not a big fan of using married couple data to make statements about individual preferences for a mate. Just because we can observe a man who is married to a woman two years younger than him does not prove that he prefers a woman two years younger to one who was, say, ten years younger. It just proves that a woman two years younger fell within his acceptable age range and that his age fell simultaneously within her acceptable age range.

Like the Rolling Stones say: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.” (Mick Jagger’s economics training really shines through in his music, I think.)

There are statistical methods to get around this matching problem, however, and to estimate mate preferences from the data in a way that assumes that each individual could choose freely from the set of potential partners available to them. When this is done for preferences over age it appears that men prefer a woman who is 1.9 years younger than themselves and women prefer a man 3.5 years older than themselves.* Male preference for women younger more than two years younger than themselves drops off, but not as quickly as a woman’s preference for younger men. In fact there the evidence is strongly against the idea that women are seeking younger mates.

When people do find a mate that is much younger, or much older, do those marriages last? According to a new study that uses Australian data, marriages where there is a big difference in ages have a much lower probability of success.** In fact, a marriage in which the man is a little as two years younger than his wife is 53% more likely to dissolve than one in which the man is one year younger or three years older. The problem isn’t just for older women, marriages in which the man is nine or more years older than his wife have double the chance they will not last.

I don’t really understand the cultural preoccupation with older women seeking younger men. The women I know who are with much younger men (yes Heather, I am talking about you) seem to be slightly embarrassed by that fact. It is too bad. Age may matter, but it is only one of several factors that are important when you are looking for love.

* Logan, John Allen, Peter D Hoff and Michael A Newton. “Two-Sided Estimation of Mate Preferences for Similarities in Age, Education, and Religion.” Journal of the American Statistical Association. June 1, 2008, 103(482): 559-569. doi:10.1198/016214507000000996.

** Kippen, Rebecca, Bruce Chapman, and Peng Yu . “What's love got to do with it? Homogamy and dyadic approaches to understanding marital instability.” Working Paper (2009).

Image courtesy of Flickr user Alex E. Proimos.

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