Millenials and Family Formation

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.

Chart by Mark Perry, Univ. of Michigan

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.

Answers?

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.

-rsh

  • http://travisrobertson.com Travis Robertson

    Nicely written, Rob! Well argued points. It will take me a little time to get this together since I have a couple of days out of the office this week. I will respond, though. :)

    Also, thanks for the compliments – the feeling is mutual. Enjoy our discussions a lot.

  • Anonymous

    Rob’s post has stimulated me to start watching Travis’ video…Nicely done, on both sides. I am looking forward to this dialogue as I have given this topic some thought but will now sit back and read the really interesting points that you guys make, and my brain won’t have to work as hard

  • http://twitter.com/anarchival anarchival

    As Carrie Lukas points out today in the Washington Post (http://on.wsj.com/ewJ34U), the gender disparity in pay, education, and employment is subject to much larger market forces than sexual politics. I disagree with her that women are paid less because they work less for several reasons, primarily because she claims women are primarily knowledge workers while holding them to a management standard only applicable to manufacturing workers. But that’s not my point. Sure, employers can save money by hiring a woman instead of a man to do the same work for less pay (and perhaps that accounts for some of the employment disparity), but that disparity is also an indication that our economy is/has shifted away from manual workers to knowledge workers. There are certainly women who can build houses and chop down trees, but those jobs are some of the few areas that can still be considered “men’s work,” and when women enter the workforce in greater numbers they tend to take knowledge-based jobs. Simultaneously, the same men who have been put out of work as the manual jobs were replaced with office jobs aren’t doing a very good job at retooling. They’re just giving up.

    What we are witnessing, then, is the unleashing of the intellectual and productive potential of half the human species who happen to be very well-suited to knowledge work, while the other half — who are perhaps not as well-suited to knowledge work — flounders to keep their once-dominate position in the labor market. This trend has been building for quite some time, but it’s only really gotten going in the last several decades. Frankly, anyone who thinks we can suddenly, 1) change the basis of our economy from manufacturing to knowledge work, while 2) fully educating and putting women to work (beyond the typical domestic drudgery and childreading duties), without eventually completely restructing our socio-economic system, would have to be delusional. Those who mourn these changes are, unfortunately, simply living in the past. The economy is going to change. Women are going to continue excelling in that economy. The only thing we can do in the face of these changes is to ask ourselves how we can best adapt. I’d also like to point out that we’re completely ignoring issues of race and geography in this little labor discussion, which are much more important than gender, but I digress.

    I could go on and on about my other objections to this point, but for the sake of brevity (too late), I’ll just harp on one more point. I’m not even sure if I mean any of the following seriously, but I’ve been told by at least one man that his gender really only wants three things: food, sex, and something to do the rest of the time (usually work or sports or some other form of competition). Others might add a fourth category to that list for beer, but whether that needs its own category or not, the point is that men are pigs with no other serious desires besides the satisfaction of their own animal natures. Motivations like love, spirituality, and devotion are foreign to them, outside of being tools to get the former three things. I find this to be a terribly depressing thought not just as a heterosexual woman but also on a purely human level, and despite my man-hating tendencies I have my doubts that it’s actually true. However, let’s set that aside for a moment.

    So, assuming it’s true that the male desire for committed relationships is solely limited by the biological determinism you’ve described, not only does a young man’s desire to live in unmarried polygamous relationships for the foreseeable future make sense, but it also explains his lack of desire to pursue higher education and career success. After all, as you point out, by sheer demographic force, men are already winning the battle of mate selection. As more and more women become successful and fewer and fewer males are found to be their equals in achievement, men will be further rewarded for their slouchy behavior with better mates for less effort, and presumably women will either have to learn to “settle” for lesser men or family formation will disintegrate further. What’s worse, what we’re describing is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more women achieve, the less men have motivation to match or exceed them.

    The problem is, for every woman in the history of civilization that’s married up, there’s been a man that’s married down. We’re not just dealing with a problem of uppity, career-seeking women who don’t know their place is in the home. Men have had it easy for a long, long time when it comes to marrying women they can out-perform, and they’ve enjoyed that dominance in a lot of ways. Now, they must either learn to function as well or better than the women in this new economy, or both sexes will have to adapt to a much different power dynamic in relationships. It’s true that this type of arrangement hasn’t been seen on a mass scale in all of recorded human history; however, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means we could be witnessing a fairly big step in human evolution (Singularity, anyone?)

    Frankly, this entire biology-based argument reminds me of little kids playing kickball on the playground. A group of boys starts the game. They’re having fun, when one or two girls come along and begs to be let in. They’re in a good mood that day, so they let the girls play too. Unfortunately, one of the girls happens to be really good at kickball, and soon she’s kicking all the boys’ asses. Their fragile, little boy egos can’t take getting beat by a girl, and soon they start to yell, “if the girls are going to play, we’re not going to play with you!” The girls are either expected to quit the game so they can still get prom dates in ten years, or they end up playing kickball alone. Maybe a few of the boys who don’t care if they get beat stick around, but pretty soon the other boys have moved on to play a game of football or something. It’s as though men would prefer to not play at all at the risk of getting beat by a girl. They are losing competitively, so they make us pay sexually to even the score. My guess is that we’ll still be the ones cooking dinner.

    • http://www.notorious-rob.com Notorious R.O.B.

      I agree that the ascendancy of women has quite a lot to do with the changes to our economic system. Nor do I necessarily think that’s a horrible thing… although the imbalance in education numbers could have really bad consequences in future years. (Unemployed men who can’t get dates tend not to be the most stable group, socially speaking….)

      But what this post addresses — and you touch on — is this:

      It’s true that this type of arrangement hasn’t been seen on a mass scale in all of recorded human history; however, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means we could be witnessing a fairly big step in human evolution

      It could be. I tend to doubt it a great deal, but it could be. Because evolution doesn’t happen on a scale of decades; it happens on a scale of millenia. The biology-based argument has nothing to do with playground kickball and men being threatened by women; it has far more to do with propagation of the species. The natural imperative to reproduce yielded the different psychological impulses that drive both men and women over the course of tens or hundreds of thousands of years. To think we’ll somehow “get over that” because of a few short decades of economic progress strikes me as wishful thinking more than anything else.

      But let me ask you this, if you are a Millenial woman. How do you see this predicament working out? Have you settled for a lesser man? Would you? If you have not, how does family formation look to your generation? Are we talking about lots of educated single moms a la Angelina Jolie model? Serial short-term relationships resulting in children from different fathers? A small elite of traditional nuclear families (that continually shrinks) surrounded by a sea of accomplished women shacking up with any old Starbucks barista to have kids? What are we looking at here over the next 10-20 years?

      • http://twitter.com/anarchival anarchival

        >>although the imbalance in education numbers could have really bad consequences in future years. (Unemployed men who can’t get dates tend not to be the most stable group, socially speaking….)<> Because evolution doesn’t happen on a scale of decades; it happens on a scale of millenia. The biology-based argument has nothing to do with playground kickball and men being threatened by women; it has far more to do with propagation of the species. The natural imperative to reproduce yielded the different psychological impulses that drive both men and women over the course of tens or hundreds of thousands of years. To think we’ll somehow “get over that” because of a few short decades of economic progress strikes me as wishful thinking more than anything else.<> But let me ask you this, if you are a Millenial woman. How do you see this predicament working out? Have you settled for a lesser man? Would you? If you have not, how does family formation look to your generation? Are we talking about lots of educated single moms a la Angelina Jolie model? Serial short-term relationships resulting in children from different fathers? A small elite of traditional nuclear families (that continually shrinks) surrounded by a sea of accomplished women shacking up with any old Starbucks barista to have kids? What are we looking at here over the next 10-20 years?<<

        For starters, I am uncomfortable with judging a man's worth by his pocketbook, and I'm even more uncomfortable gauging my willingness to have sex with a man by how much money he could provide me. I'm not a prostitute, and frankly I think women who marry a man because he'd make a good provider are engaging in legalized prostitution. I look for other things in a life partner. Then again, this business of women supporting themselves isn't a new trend in my family. My mother, grandmother, and great-great grandmother were all divorced with young children, and they had to support their families without help from child support or alimony for the most part. Even outside my own anecdotal experience, the idea of traditional nuclear families being normative is a myth. They are the exception not the rule, and I'm willing to bet that's been true for all of human history (not that we have the statistical data to back that up). Already we know that women will spend, on average, only twenty years of their life with a mate. More than a quarter of women already have children with multiple mates, and the majority of that multiplicity is due to divorce and remarriage. I'm not sure that we should be happy those women are marrying and divorcing instead of simply having children with multiple men (it seems incredibly wasteful when you consider the financial costs involved, to say the least).

        Besides, I learned at a very young age from my father that getting money from men usually comes at a higher price than I was willing to pay, so even when I date men with money I'm not comfortable taking it from them. It's a much healthier relationship when I can support myself, and it's much more sustainable as a couple since if one person loses their income and needs to take up the slack in the household for a period of time the partnership isn't destroyed by it. If we had children I would expect an equal contribution to their support, but that doesn't necessitate him earning enough to support all three (or more) of us. Keep in mind that the primary reason women have sought wealthy mates through most of recorded history has been because men controlled the vast majority of the capital (and still do). There weren't many ways for a woman to support herself and her children beyond taking her income from her mate. The institution of marriage was more or less created with this fact in mind. Naturally, now that more women are assuming a greater responsibility for their own support, marriage is starting to break down. I'm not sure this is a bad thing. It may be tied to a biological purpose, but it is a cultural institution that could probably be replaced with something better. But to answer your questions directly: yes, to all of the above, especially in terms of the next couple decades, which I think is an extraordinarily short view in this discussion. If we are on the cusp of an evolutionary shift, the actual change is much further off, and we're incapable of envisioning what it might look like from our current perspective. What will come in the short-term will look a lot more chaotic, as old forms die and struggle to live on and new forms are created, tested, discarded, and formed again. My only hope is that the progress will survive into the future without any centuries-long setbacks.

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