Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The "Man Drought" Strikes Back

Last August I posted on the so-called New Zealand "man drought". Uncovered by an opportunistic Australian who had read off some numbers from the 2001 census, this "drought" involved an apparent demographic gender imbalance in the 20-49 age group.

It was quickly seized upon by the print media, TV, watercooler chatter, and people like my flatmate's 24 year-old friend who rang her up and asked anxiously: "Did you hear? There's a man drought in Wellington!" (with a tone that might have been suitable for "earthquake" or "bird flu epidemic"). [Postscript: I saw said friend at a party a few weeks later, surrounded by at least four eager and jostling males].

Though I had some personal perspectives and theories on why the "drought" was becoming an instant cultural myth, my initial priority was to post on its lamentably dumb, credulous treatment in the media. I was going to do a follow up, but as time went by, figured it was maybe too silly a topic to waste the effort on.

But now the man drought is back in the news. "New Zealand women settle for less" shouted the headline in last weeks Christchurch Press. Supposedly a trend has been identified of women "marrying down", by choosing partners of lower educational, and sometimes economic, status, because of a lack of eligible men.

The resident expert is again boffiny Wellington economist Paul Callister, who appeared in print and on TV last time around spouting off about the future dynamics of relationships.

He has been contracted by the Department of Labour to investigate the demographic imbalance. Among his findings are that, surprise surprise, the "man drought" has been overhyped. The gap in women and men in the 20-49 age group is actually more like 33,000 rather than the 53,000 depicted by the 2001 census.

But he thinks he has uncovered a drought of sorts - one of smart blokes:

Callister said the most significant finding of his research was a 10 per cent increase in the past two decades in highly educated women marrying men with fewer qualifications and, in many cases, lower-paid jobs. This had happened largely because of a lack of eligible partners of equal educational or economic status, he said.

The Press article eagerly extended the metaphor of scarcity , talking of "slim pickings" for women. Predictably, Michael Laws got uncouthly in on the act in the Sunday Star Times, commenting that "the man drought...has had the effect of single women searching out any male with a pulse in an attempt to copulate and breed".

But as appealing as the idea might be to some of scores of frustrated women casting around for well-educated men (someone point them out, please), I just don't buy it.

Assuming that the statistics actually have the significance that's claimed, how's this for an alternative interpretation? Maybe New Zealand women, increasingly likely to be well-educated and with independent means, are simply indulging their existing inclination to partner up with the rugby players, farmers and tradespeople who our culture constantly tells us are the only really acceptable Kiwi blokes?

But in fact there is reason to suspect that the meaning of the stats has been twisted. To know what the significance is of 10 percent more highly educated women "marrying down", you'd have to know some other facts, including what the overall increase has been in highly educated women over the last two decades. If, as is likely, this has increased by more than 10 percent, the number of women "marrying down" might have increased, but not the proportion.

In other words, highly educated women are no more likely to "marry down"; there are just more of them. So it's not about a paucity of men at all - but the fact that there's more girls with degrees.

Seen this way, the discussion appears to be less about what is still a dubious and poorly quantified gender imbalance, and more a somewhat sexist insecurity about disturbance to the natural order of things.

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5 comments:

Helen said...

Human Behavioural Ecologists will tell you that in every culture women's economic power strongly affects their mate choice.

Some would posit that because of its universality, this is an innate trait, others would say it is a rational response to each particular situation.

Women with little economic power (or capacity to earn) choose partners with access to economic resources. This can include creepy talentless inheritors,and cut-throat nouveau riche.

Women at the high end of the economic power spectrum choose partners for their genetic endowments: symmetrical proportions, broad shoulders and the like.

Obviously NZ has seen economic equality by gender increase over the last 100+ years, and I think that this accounts for changes in mate choice preferences.

Do you have thoughts on this?

Cecilia said...

No doubt stating the obvious here, but if women are now "marrying down" by marrying someone with less qualifications, etc. then were men always marrying down before? Oh, but that's right, women's educational background didn't matter.

Simon Bidwell said...

Helen - the analysis seems prima facie plausible.  Though behavioral ecology is a bit of a fancy name for common sense – i.e. people who are relatively poor tend to chase after wealth; those who are relatively wealthy tend to prioritise nabbing someone who's hot.  I say "people", because the same holds for men - have you ever seen the docos about overweight middle-aged European woman who score themselves good-looking, devoted young blokes from West Africa or Nepal?

Add the caveat that you are using "choice" in the economics sense - i.e.  applying an assumption of rationality to regular, predictable behaviour patterns of population groups.  This is to be distinguished from the folk sense of choice, which relates to the subjectively apparent motivations of an individual.  

With regard to the New Zealand situation, I would caution: what do the stats actually show? As I say in the post, it's entirely possible that the proportion of women “marrying down” is the same or smaller as 20 years ago, suggesting that “choices” may not have changed according to your analysis.

What may be the case in NZ – and here I indulge in some random speculation of my own – is that, while women have historically had less economic power, our egalitarian society has maintained relatively little inequality in men's incomes. So it's always been rational enough for women to prioritise features with genetic benefit (such as broad shoulders), or those venerated by our culture, such as the ability to hold together a rolling maul or wack a load of fenceposts in the back paddock.

In particular, higher education hasn't traditionally been a ticket to wealth and status in NZ, as it might be elsewhere. Even now, a good builder might be expected to earn as much or more as a mid-rank university lecturer.

If you read the story I link to, the big fat assumption is that education = wealth = attractiveness to women. Or even education = attractiveness to women. This, I reckon, is just wishful thinking.

Cecilia – de acuerdo, I think this is what I was referring to when I said the sub-text of the article was “disturbance to the natural order of things”.

Cecilia said...

Simon, you raise an excellent point. Not to reiterate your whole theory but, I agree that "higher education hasn't traditionally been a ticket to wealth and status in NZ, as it might be elsewhere." It's hard to know if this originated in working class suspicion of success and status or from traditional economic possibilities. Well, I guess the two are intertwined, but certainly traditional NZ economic policies played a role. Until relatively recently in NZ there was not much disparity in income or "economic background". Even if you were a doctor or lawyer, the government took half your hard earned money anyway, so you weren't living that differently from the guy working at Mitre 10. And a long standing antipathy against big businesses pretty much stifled most entrepreneurship so there wasn't exactly a bulging class of wealthy business men for women to "marry up" into. Displays of wealth or success have traditionally been frowned upon and treated with suspicion in NZ society. In fact pretty much the only thing that confered status and prestige in the way that money and social background usually do was prowess on the rugby field. Lets face it, that's about as primeval a display of anti-intellectualism as you can find these days.

Women in NZ probably have been selecting men for their fencepost wacking and trailer backing skills, and thus effectively marrying down by today's standards, since colonial times. Certainly displays of brutishness are one of the main things NZ women have been socially conditioned to seek. Perhaps standards of what is considered socially desirable traits in a mate have not changed at the same rate as economic policies.

However, as a counter to my "excessive taxation is to blame" argument, I'm curious if countries such as Sweden (where the highest income bracket pays 60% in taxes) have a similar cultural phenomenen, i.e. 1) has the relationship between higher education and social status traditionally been weaker than say, the US; and 2)do Swedish women also prefer bozos?

Interested in any comments. Oh, and I know I'll get jumped all over for my economic policy view...feel free! And one last thing: I too admire men who can hit the sabre toothed tiger on the head. I just prefer them to pick me up, take me to dinner, and impress me with their grasp on foreign policy as well.

Simon Bidwell said...

Hmm, I think it's less about taxation rates than about being a young, frontier society with a small and relatively unsophisticated economy and anti-intellectual culture. Otherwise your analysis would have to hold true not only for Sweden, but also for other high-taxing social democracies like France, Germany and Italy.
In general, social democratic economic policies only date fron the 1930s or the 1950s, which I don't think is enough time to influence the culture of sexual preferences. Education and intellectual acumen have long been status-conferring attributes in European societies, whereas some of the more "red state" parts of the US probably have an anti-intellectualism similar to or exceeding NZ's. But of course, the US is an older, much larger, more aspirational economy, with a tradition of (or at least a belief in the possibility of)social mobility.
So, in summary, maybe in Europe education and sophistication are admired in and of themselves, while in the US they at least have instrumental value in signalling possible economic success. In NZ, neither - though the exception is doctors, who have until recently been held up as paragons only slightly below the status of a good openside flanker.