Travis Robertson is one of my new friends from RETech South. He’s one of the brightest, most thoughtful young men I’ve met in recent years, and I think the world of him. And of course, when I can debate significant issues with intelligent people I genuinely like, that’s pretty close to nirvana for me. Well, adding a few mugs of beer and doing it in person would be best… But lacking that, Travis and I agreed to carry on a series of blogposts in which we debate the impact of the Millenials (sometimes called Gen-Y).
First, let me urge you to watch Travis’s speech at RETechSouth. It’s an hour long, but it’s fully worthwhile, if only for yours truly being mentioned in an amusing context:
This is going to be a topic we won’t settle in one post. But longtime readers know that I’ve been skeptical about the Gen-Y’s future for a variety of reasons. I’m already on record as suggesting that real estate won’t be saved by the Gen-Y; Travis agrees, but suggests Gen-Y will change real estate.
Well, every generation changes the world around it. But what I’d like to challenge is the phenomenon of Millenial Triumphalism, in which the Gen-Y and its enablers make the kind of statements about why Gen-Y is unlike any other generation that came before it, and talk as if the Millenials are the change that they’ve been waiting for. My admittedly more tempered view is that before the Millenials will change the world, the world will change Millenials.
In this post, let’s talk specifically about family formation — the topic that spawned my comment about polygamy — as one of the driving factors behind home sales is family formation: people meeting, falling in love, getting married, and starting a family.
Gender Imbalance in the Millenial Population
Travis is well-aware of the facts of the incredible gender imbalance within the Millenials. Numerous people, myself included, have commented on some of these never-before-seen numbers:
- 60% of college students are women
- 60% of adults holding an advanced degree are women
- Women earn more Master’s and Ph.D. degrees than men
- Women make up the majority of the workforce today
And Travis himself says that the majority of first-time homebuyers in 2010 were single women, Millenial or otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, the educational achievements are having an economic impact as well. The Census Bureau reports a direct correlation between degrees and income:
The data also demonstrate the extent to which having such a degree pays off: average earnings in 2008 totaled $83,144 for those with an advanced degree, compared with $58,613 for those with a bachelor’s degree only. People whose highest level of attainment was a high school diploma had average earnings of $31,283.
And the current Great Recession is actually the Great Mancession.
So the news is wonderful if you’re a female professional competing in the labor market. In the eternal back-and-forth between men and women, it is clear that American women have won the battle, and pretty decisively. Economically, Millenial men are at a disadvantage compared to Millenial women in pretty much every conceivable way.
It turns out, however, that male disadvantage has real consequences to women… at least the ones who actually like men and want to marry one of ‘em one of these days.
The Numbers of Love & Marriage
At the most basic level, the fact that 60% of college students are women means that there are only two men for three men in college. That’s leading to some interesting dating dynamics on college campuses:
Students interviewed here said they believed their mating rituals reflected those of college students anywhere. But many of them — men and women alike — said that the lopsided population tends to skew behavior.
“A lot of my friends will meet someone and go home for the night and just hope for the best the next morning,” Ms. Lynch said. “They’ll text them and say: ‘I had a great time. Want to hang out next week?’ And they don’t respond.”
Even worse, “Girls feel pressured to do more than they’re comfortable with, to lock it down,” Ms. Lynch said.
As for a man’s cheating, “that’s a thing that girls let slide, because you have to,” said Emily Kennard, a junior at North Carolina. “If you don’t let it slide, you don’t have a boyfriend.”
It is tautological that if 3 of 5 college students are women, then 3 of 5 people who have college degrees in the big metropolitan areas in the country will also be women. Indeed, the dating scene for these highly educated, accomplished women is not exactly full of options even after their bright college years are over. From Slate:
But just as critical is the fact that a significant number of young men are faring rather badly in life, and are thus skewing the dating pool. It’s not that the overall gender ratio in this country is out of whack; it’s that there’s a growing imbalance between the number of successful young women and successful young men. As a result, in many of the places where young people typically meet—on college campuses, in religious congregations, in cities that draw large numbers of twentysomethings—women outnumber men by significant margins. (In one Manhattan ZIP code, for example, women account for 63 percent of 22-year-olds.) [Emphasis mine.]
Why does this matter for family formation?
Female Hypergamy and Male Disinterest
These socioeconomic trends matter because of the phenomenon of female hypergamy. Women throughout the known human history have always, always, always sought to marry up. This has been true of every human society, East and West, North and South, of every language, every culture, every religion.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that hypergamy is derived from the different investments that a male and a female make in producing offspring. Women want the man who will be the father of their children to provide some resources for their joint offspring, particularly since having a child is so seriously disruptive to career plans, earning potential, even health and survival (harder to flee the sabertooth tiger if you’re carrying a two year old infant):
Much of the research on human mating is based on parental investment theory, which makes important predictions about the different strategies men and women will use in the mating domain (see above under “Middle-level evolutionary theories”). In essence, it predicts that women will be more selective when choosing mates, whereas men will not, especially under short-term mating conditions. This has led some researchers to predict sex differences in such domains as sexual jealousy, wherein females will react more aversively to emotional infidelity and males will react more aversively to sexual infidelity. This particular pattern is predicted because the costs involved in mating for each sex are distinct. Women, on average, should prefer a mate who can offer some kind of resources (e.g., financial, commitment), which means that a woman would also be more at risk for losing those valued traits in a mate who commits an emotional infidelity. Men, on the other hand, are limited by the fact that they can never be certain of the paternity of their children because they do not bear the offspring themselves. This obstacle entails that sexual infidelity would be more aversive than emotional infidelity for a man because investing resources in another man’s offspring does not lead to propagation of the man’s own genes.
And before you start commenting that your aunt Sally, a doctor, fell in love with an unemployed construction worker and married him and they have a wonderful life, and so on… I’m fully prepared to admit that individual cases of non-hypergamic behavior may exist. When you fall in love, you fall in love, and damn what may come. But at a societal level, there has never been any record of a human society of any duration or significance, where women did not seek to marry up in some way.
Even were we to assume that 21st century American women, liberated from all the phallocentric patriarchy of the past, no longer seek to marry up… we probably should assume that they’d want to marry an equal. Hillary Clinton, after all, did not marry a blue collar construction worker with a GED; she married a Rhodes Scholar she met at Yale Law School.
Remember those 138,000 highly successful women with advanced degrees? They cannot meet a man who is their equal in education; it is mathematically impossible. But even those in the 339,000 women who can mathematically meet a man with an advanced degree are not in a great situation for the reason that Slate points out: men have far more options due to plain old supply and demand.
The terms of contemporary sexual relationships favor men and what they want in relationships, not just despite the fact that what they have to offer has diminished, but in part because of it. And it’s all thanks to supply and demand.
That is, because so many other men are unacceptable to highly successful women, the few successful men find it ever easier to get laid. And when you’re a young, healthy 30-year old investment banker in New York… why would you ever want to settle down and limit your options to just one girl? It has to be true love indeed. Especially since the minute this young man enters into a marriage, all of the advantage he enjoyed evaporates in our contemporary family law system.
The strange thing is not that the marriage rate is decreasing by 1% a year for the past decade; the strange thing is that some young men are getting married at all.
So that was the context behind my half-joke about polygamy being legal in 30 years. Because I don’t know what the impact of the gender imbalance we are seeing now in the Millenials is in terms of family formation. I’ve had this debate with Travis — and others — as to what they think the social consequences would be.
There are usually two responses I get.
One, Millenial women will simply marry down.
I’ll believe that when I see it. Perhaps Dr. Sally Jones would marry “down” to be with Mr. Joe Smith who only has a college degree. I could see that. But I simply do not buy that a college-educated woman would marry a high-school grad (unless he’s a rock star, movie star, or a professional athlete of some sort). The socio-cultural differences are simply too large. College has come to mean far more in our society than just a piece of paper; it’s where you go to learn about culture, about literature, the arts, and the finer things in life. Skilled tradesmen, like electricians and plumbers, make a good living… but they don’t sit around Amalgamated Plumbing Local 218 discussing Jacques Derrida or American foreign policy in Pakistan; college grads do. College grads go to the Film Forum for the Fellini retrospective; non-college grads do not. (And again, yes, exceptions exist, blah blah blah.)
And economically, as the Census data indicates, the earning gap is simply too large to believe that a successful woman earning $60K a year would marry some guy who works in a maintenance garage at $32K a year, since children would reduce her earning potential far more than his. Sure, it’s possible, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Two, education is not the only path to success — young men without college degrees can start businesses and do other things to become attractive to more-educated women.
The idea is that Millenials are an entrepreneurial, technology-empowered generation, and they will not be chained to hidebound conventions of ye olde New England. The problem here is that without at least a college degree, the number and kinds of businesses that one could start are pretty limited — after all, you can’t start an accounting firm without a degree in accounting. You have the skilled trades — but again, see above about socio-cultural differences. Restaurants and retail do not require a college degree. Real estate doesn’t require a college degree (yet). And there are a number of small business opportunities (hair salons, pet care, telemarketing, etc.) that exist. You also have some specialized technology-related services, like web programming and so on; after all, we’re often told that Bill Gates did not graduate from college, and Mark Zuckerberg did not use his Harvard degree much in creating Facebook.
The trouble is, first, in America today, not getting a college degree — even from a community college or a University of Phoenix — is usually indicative of a lack of drive and a lack of discipline. Getting into college isn’t difficult, even if getting into the ‘right’ college is like winning the lottery. So it’s difficult to imagine that the majority of those young men who didn’t go to college would suddenly discover this entrepreneurial spirit, this will-to-succeed at all costs mentality that starting your own business requires.
Second, unless said high-school grad comes from family money, getting the capital together to start a small business is no easy task, especially at the lowered earnings that the lack of education represents. How much can you really save out of $32K a year towards starting a business? Is a bank likely to give a business loan to someone who doesn’t even have a community college degree?
Again, exceptions exist — but would enough Millenial young men suddenly find the drive and gumption to start all sorts of businesses, despite not caring enough about their future to go to college, to meet the demands of the one out of three college-educated women who mathematically cannot meet a college-educated man? I don’t see it. Not yet.
Challenge to Millenial Triumphalists
So here’s the challenge, now that I’ve laid out my case for why I believe the Millenials will see far lower rates of family formation than any we have seen to date.
Given the above facts and data, how do you see the Millenials dealing with this issue? Because it’s not a small issue of just boys and girls getting together; family formation drives housing and to a large extent, drives the economy. Men with children work far harder, far longer, than men without — simply because their priorities change the instant they lay eyes on their son or daughter for the first time.
The 230,000 women in the Class of 2008 who cannot mathematically meet a man who is a college graduate… what do they do when time comes to find a husband (or at least a long-term committed boyfriend, willing to provide for her and her children)?
Over to you.