Younger Men And Older Women.

One of the most surprisingly absorbing blogs out there is OkTrends, the official blog of the dating site OkCupid, which is apparently run by a bunch of math geeks.  They spend what must be a jaw-dropping amount of time mining their databases for answers to questions like where do people shower the least (hello, Oregon!), what kind of profile picture is most likely to generate male responses (surprisingly, the MySpace shot; unsurprisingly, the cleavage shot), and how to write a successful first message to a prospective date (be literate).

In their most recent blog post, they highlight the apparent dichotomy that though relatively older women (in their 30s and 40s) often score as attractive and have more enlightened attitudes about things like casual sex and STD testing, the vast majority of men prefer to date women younger than themselves.

A man, as he gets older, searches for relatively younger and younger women. Meanwhile his upper acceptable limit hovers only a token amount above his own age.  The median 31 year-old guy, for example, sets his allowable match age range from 22 to 35—nine years younger, but only four years older, than himself. This skewed mindset worsens with age; the median 42 year-old will accept a woman up to fifteen years younger, but no more than three years older.

In the comments, a number of people point out the obvious (though debatable) corollary to the OkCupid findings: many older women aren’t interested in dating younger men, especially men in their early-twenties.

The trend that the OkCupid guys are noticing here is actually a much-studied sociological phenomenon called marital hypergamy.  It’s most commonly seen in societies with very strong castes in their social system, but it’s observable, to one degree or another, in most modern cultures.  Basically, in general, men are willing do marry women of their own social caste or lower, while women are generally only willing to marry in their own social caste or higher.  With all the men marrying up and the women marrying down, two lonely strata are created: a large pool of men at the bottom, and a small number of women at the top.  Neither of these groups have the luxury of looking outside their social strata for mates.

OkCupid in particular has what I would imagine to be a relatively homogeneous middle-class user base – that is, relatively few people on it are very rich or very poor. Given that, in the United States, there are few ways other than money to recognize social status, I think it’s clear that the hypergamy is broadly manifesting itself in dating ages.

I first learned about marital hypergamy in my Introduction to Sociology class my freshman year at NYU, and it was responsible for perhaps the most profound epiphany of my college years.  The epiphany was this: hypergamy is completely applicable to the social structure of most American high schools.

Consider!  High schools are organized into extremely strict social strata with a number of observable trends.  Freshman and sophomore girls very often date junior or senior boys.  But the reverse is uncommon – freshman or sophomore boys hardly ever date junior or senior girls.  Older girls tend to date other seniors, college students, or the recently-graduated.  And at the bottom are a large pool of younger males who can’t find anyone to date them, except junior high students, which even at that age strikes everyone else as a little creepy.

For a few moments after this all hit me I was struck dumb, but then I raised my hand and, when called on, excitedly related my theory to the professor.  Unfortunately, my three-hundred-person intro class was taught by an aging, somewhat-deaf man named Gerald Marwell – quite the luminary in his field, and very knowledgeable, but unused to sudden interruptions from excited students.  “No, young man,” he said, “you’ve misunderstood me.  I was talking about early-twentieth century Japan.  You see…”   And he turned back around to the board and continued with his lecture.

The observation has nevertheless stuck with me, and I’m almost absurdly pleased that OkCupid has given me the opportunity to brag about it in a public forum.