Editor's Note: This essay from Kay Hymowitz, originally published on January 29, 2020, is our 9th most popular blog post of the year.
It was once a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman would be in want of a prosperous husband. This is not to say that women wanted to “marry for money.” But it is to concede that when women are unable to earn their own livelihood, as they have been unable to do through much of human history, husbands determine a family’s economic and social status. Hypergamy—the tendency of women to try to marry “up”—was, in part, a natural response to this dependency. Marriage was the only way a woman determined her status in life.
These realities led many observers to surmise that the gender revolution that began in the mid 20th century would bring about the end of hypergamy. It made sense. Women with their own paychecks and bank accounts should have a different calculus when choosing a mate than those with neither. Indeed, under those conditions, a woman might decide not to choose a mate at all. Twenty-first century women have been able to successfully prepare themselves to be their own man, as it were. They now have more education than men. They have joined the labor force in massive numbers. The Department of Labor recently announced that in the U.S. women are the majority of nonfarm payroll employees. That’s happened only once before— in 2010 during a historically severe recession that hit men especially hard.
So, does that mean hypergamy has become a thing of the past? New evidence suggests the answer is no.
True, if you consider education alone, at least in developed countries, hypergamy could be said to be just about obsolete. Up until the mid-20th century, married men typically had more education than their wives. Today, that norm has reversed: when it comes to diplomas, women “partner down” more than men do. And whereas in the past, hypogamous couples —wives with more education than their husbands—were at greater risk of divorce, this is no longer the case. A number of researchers concluded that this showed that younger cohorts were adapting well to “the changing realities of the marriage market” and evolving gender relations. Some experts predicted that growing gender egalitarianism would lead to rising fertility rates as men took on more responsibility for housekeeping and child care.
But hypergamy turns out to be a stubborn thing. It seems that the highly-credentialed alpha female still prefers a mate above her pay grade. In one of the most widely-cited papers on the subject, demographer Yue Qian compared couples in the 1980 Census and in 2012 American Community Survey. She found that during the intervening decades, though wives became more likely to marry down in terms of educational achievement, “the tendency for women to marry men with higher incomes than themselves persisted.” In fact, women with the same or more education than their husbands were more likely to marry up.
The latest entry to the hypergamy literature, published in the December 2019 issue of The European Sociological Review, confirms Qian’s findings and adds some suggestive details. Using Swedish register data for people born across several decades, the two authors, Margarita Chudnovskayaof Stockholm University and Ridi Kasrup of Oxford, divided couples into three groups: 1) couples where a woman is more highly educated than her husband, 2) those in which the husband is more highly educated, and 3) couples where both partners are highly educated. Arguing that social life exists across “multiple dimensions of status,” they also looked at the social origin, occupational prestige, and income for the three groups. And they limited their analysis to couples before they had children so as to rule out the regrettably termed “motherhood penalty.”
It seems that the highly-credentialed alpha female still prefers a mate above her pay grade.
The results? On several dimensions, status was consistent with education levels: the partner with higher education (male or female) also had higher occupational prestige and social class. But when it came to income, hypergamy re-asserted itself. In every union type, including those with a more educated female partner, “men are the most likely to be the main earners.” That Sweden’s commitment to gender egalitarianism is close to a state religion and that women have been partnering with less-educated men for decades only adds to the salience of the findings.
One reasonable guess is that men’s income advantage is due not to the persistence of hypergamy but rather to the gender wage gap, which sits at about 14% in Sweden. To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a simulation by randomly matching couples within the observed educational categories. Here, contemporary mating does take on more nuance. Couples with similar education levels, and those with a more highly-educated male partner, actually had more equal incomes than would be predicted if couples were matched randomly. However, in couples where the woman had the education advantage, random matching predicted that more women would be the higher earner than actually were. As in Qian’s study, highly-educated women appear to have an especially strong preference for men who out-earn them. If the Swedes are any indication, couples are blase’ about gender equality, but not about hypergamy.
That generalization finds some support in “Mismatches in the Marriage Market,” another 2019 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The authors analyzed the socio-demographic characteristics of couples who married between 2008 to 2012 and between 2013 to 2017. That data allowed them to create a profile of marriageable men for women with varying racial, economic, and educational levels and compare them to the actual population of unmarried men at national, state, and local area levels. Their findings were not promising for single women interested in finding an “economically attractive men.” The already married men had 58% higher income than the men currently available and were 30% more likely to be employed. As in previous studies, the mismatch was larger for minority and especially African-American women than white.
Of course, it’s possible the persistence of hypergamy is only a sign of what Arlie Hochschild calls a “stalled revolution.” The share of American women earning more than their husbands or cohabiting partners has increased steadily over the years, hitting 28% as of 2017. Although the data doesn’t include a generational breakdown, it’s likely that the numbers are higher for younger cohorts. According to the World Values Survey, younger men and women are far more likely than their elders to believe that hypogamous unions will not “cause problems.”
But it’s also possible that women, being the ones who bear and nurse the children, will continue to prefer men who earn at least as much as they do. This impulse may help explain why, contra the hopes of some experts, the gender revolution has not given us rising fertility rates, but the opposite. The groups with the lowest proportion of “marriageable men” are the ones whose fertility rates have declined the most.
And that seems like a “Pyrrhic victory” for women and men.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.