Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hollywood's Romantic Comedies for Men: Demographic Reality?

Recently, Hollywood has found a lot of success in Romantic Comedies. But not with women, rather with men. Films like "the Wedding Crashers," ($209 million domestic box office) or "Knocked Up," ($148 million domestic box office) or "the Forty Year Old Virgin" ($109 million domestic box office) have done well, featuring men as the Romantic Comedy stars, not women. By contrast, "27 Dresses" ($76 million domestic box office), and "P.S. I Love You" ($53 million domestically), featuring female stars like Katherine Heigl and Hillary Swank, respectively, have not done as well.

Hollywood may be stumbling upon a demographic reality: in the marriage (and relationship market), it's women not men who are in control, and due to demographics, there are more men seeking to marry women than there are available and willing women. Creating a buyer's market for romantic fantasies aimed at men. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, in that women seek commitment and men wish to play the field. But demographics don't lie, and the US Census Bureau (again) has some fascinating data to back this up.

First, a word of caution. The Census Bureau no longer collects data on marriages and divorces every year, and makes it very difficult to tease out marriage data for men and women. Whenever a government agency conceals statistics and numbers like this, it's wise to assume that the bureaucracy wishes to hide something. The Bureau of Justice Statistical Reporting, available here, for example, goes through contortions to conceal the relative crime rates for Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and Asians, as well as the absolute number of crimes committed by each, and cross-racial crimes, although the rates and numbers can be teased out by careful analysis. The reason for this obfuscation is obvious -- no one inside the Justice Department wants the statistics to be part of public discussion. My instinct would be to assume that a similar dynamic is occurring with marriage rates among men and women, and the increasing ages of first-time marriages, which would be embarrassing to career-ending to disclose to the general public. Who might well demand action that conflicts with political correctness and powerful interest groups that effectively sponsor career advancement.

Be that as it may, the Census Bureau has conducted what it calls the "Survey of Income and Program Participation," which provides a 2001 snapshot of marriage and divorce among men and women. You may find (the 2001 Survey) here.

One of the fascinating things is the number of men and women who were ever married. The 2001 SIPP survey queried birth cohorts, that is men and women born in four year ranges, starting in 1935-1939 (i.e. the men and women were born in those years), and ending in 1975-1979. Bear in mind, the data from this survey is seven years old, dating to 2001. Nevertheless, it paints an interesting picture. Men in the various cohorts at age 20, who were ever married, formed a small percentage, around 20% or so, until the 1955-59 cohort, where it steadily declined to about 10%. Which makes sense, early marriage for men became less socially acceptable, and less affordable as well as incomes for blue collar work declined starting around the 1970's (when the 1955-59 cohort reached twenty, around 1975 or so).

Here's a graph produced from the report (sadly, PDF only for Excel/Open Office Calc jockeys):

[Click on the Image to Enlarge it.]

Women ever married at age 20, interestingly, show up at the first cohort, 1935-1939, at around 50%. Yes in the mid 1950's, about 50% or so of women had been married by age 20! That number steadily declines to slightly under 20% for the 1975-1979 cohort (who would have been twenty around the mid 1990's). Certainly the social effect of women marrying later is obvious here. Also, you can see the preference for older men in women's marriage pattern for this (ever married at age 20) group. Their male peers are significantly lower in marriage rates (ever married at age 20) for each cohort, so obviously the women in each cohort were marrying mostly older men. Various surveys have put the age gap in most marriages at around six years, with the man being that much older than the woman.

Men at 25 years ever married peaked at the 1940-1944 birth cohort (in the mid to late 1960's) at around 70%, and began a slow decline to slightly under 40%. Men ever married at age 30 peaked in the 1935-1939 age group (in the mid to late 1960's) at an astonishing 85% !!! Yes, folks, most men by age thirty, had overwhelming been married at least once (even if they did not stay married).

The extended adolescence and delayed marriage of men well into their thirties is a recent development. Very likely, an unhealthy one as well. By the 1965-1969 cohort, men ever married by age 30 had declined (this would be in the mid 1990's) to 65%, only slightly more than half.

Extended bachelorhood went from something only 15% of men past 30 would experience, in 1965, to 35% by 1995 or so. This is a huge change. Driven partly by economics (declining real wages for young men in their twenties pushing marriage ages for men upwards). But there are other factors involved as well.

Women ever married by age 25, in contrast, comprised 82% of the 1935-1939 cohort (again, around 1965 to 1969), and began a long, slow decline to about 53% of the 1970-74 cohort (around 1995 to 1999). [Note, for every cohort, women marry at higher rates for each category, i.e. married at age 20, age 25, or age 30.] Women ever married by age 30, have the highest rates at all, starting in the 1935-1939 cohort (again, from 1965-1969) with 88% of women by age thirty being married at least once, and declining to 74% in the 1965-1969 cohort (from 1995-1999).

What can we say about this data? A few things. One, the mid to late 1960's were an optimal time for pretty much all groups to get married, men and women, but especially men by age 30. Second, women got married and still get married at much higher rates than their same-cohort male counterparts, even if those rates have declined. More evidence (as if any were needed) that women do prefer men as husbands who are older.

Is this a problem? Yes. It is not just declining real wages for men in their twenties, which forces them to postpone marriage (renting rather than owning one's own home puts a man at a disadvantage in the marriage market). [Tthings like electronic toys are much cheaper than in the 1960's, however back then, the average man in his twenties could and did purchase a home before he reached age 30, significantly improving his chances of marriage.]

This graph shows it all:

[Click on the Image to enlarge it.]

The problem with men besides declining real income is demographics. The baby boom peaked in 1960-1964 when around 11 million men and 11 million women were born. Men and women both (marriage is consensual thankfully in the West) prefer an age gap of about 6 years or so between men and women (the woman being on average 6 years younger than her husband). Can you see the problem? For each successive cohort starting at 1935-1939, the increasing birth rate means there are more women around four to six years younger for men to choose from, and fewer older men for women to choose from. Thus, women who want to get married must compete with others, making it a man's market, allowing much higher rates of marriage for men. It's an example of supply (women four to six years younger significantly outnumbering the older male cohort) and demand (which we will assume will remain constant for men). This is admittedly an oversimplification, as noted economics, real wage declines, changing social attitudes among women towards marriage, and many other factors will affect marriage rates.

However, no matter how you slice it, declining birth rates means more older men competing for the fewer younger women each cohort. Leaving inevitably, an ever increasing amount of men out in the cold. Unmarried.

Back to Hollywood. Recall the box office numbers for the male and female romantic comedies? Even allowing for better, and worse execution of movies, Hollywood is facing a reality that it's only slowly comprehending. Women have a lot of male suitors, due to ever-declining demographics. They don't need a Romantic Comedy fantasy since they only need to look around them. This is likely why, Romantic Comedies for women started a slow but significant decline around the 1990's, when women started to realize their power in the marriage marketplace and take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, men likely need the fantasy of romance and marriage. It's no accident that good and merely pedestrian films covering the theme of "ordinary guy" meets, and after struggles, marries, his "Dream Girl" (usually orders of magnitude more attractive than himself) have done very well indeed in the box office. Any studio that recognizes this reality, and consistently implements it, is likely to be a big winner. Those that cling to outmoded demographic ideas are likely to fail just as consistently.


Anonymous said...

1) While it is true that women are in control of the marriage/relationship market, it is also true that this is biologically and not demographically driven. This fact of nature applies among ALL species that reproduce sexually.

2) I don't know where you get the idea that the typical age difference between husbands and wives is six years. 2-3 is more like it--people who get married at traditional ages (early 20's, although I concede there are far fewer of those than previously) simply do not meet potential mates with that great an age difference--and at that age it just seems slightly creepy, even if the greater age differences are more acceptable as people get older.

3) The census graph showing relative numbers of men and women with four year age difference by cohort is correct as far as it goes, but ends with the 1970-74 group. The youngest women therefore included would be born in 1978 and turning 30 this year. If the graph showed the next cohorts, which are really the ones of prime marriageable age now, it would show the return of the "man shortage" or "marriage squeeze" conditions of the 70's and 80's as the women of the post-1977 Baby Boom Echo seek men born at the tail end of the 1965-76 Baby Bust, who are fewer in number.

The men most adversely affect by the male marriage squeeze are, as you correctly point out, the tail end Baby Boomers born 1957-64, or men currently in their forties.

I think the greater problem comes not from numbers alone, but from the institutionalized feminism as the basis of public policy. When women outpace men economically, there are fewer men with whom to marry up (and protests to the contrary, they are biologically driven to do so). THAT is the real problem and why the future points to more 40-year old male virgins.

Whiskey said...

My point on #2 comes from a cite I've seen but don't have handy right now. I think it shows up in most GSS data. FWIW, Elizabeth Bennet was around 6-7 years younger than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. So that pattern seems to be deep seated and persistent.

Yes the data just ends at 1974, because the Cohort study was done in 2001. What astonishes me is there is almost NO ongoing studies in the West (or anywhere else for that matter) on marriage patterns.

That dog not barking in the night-time is suggestive; and to me indicates research suspect something they don't want to find.

I don't see the data boxed up in any of the 2006 Surveys for age at each year level or the 4-year cohort group. It's been my impression thought that there are year to year steady declines in the birth rate since the tail end of the boomer peak. If not, then you are correct.

I would agree on the desire to marry up, you can certainly see it in the NY Times Magazine article about the fad for IVF among wealthy Manhattanites. It's used as as substitute for marrying up. With profound social consequences.

Too many 40 year old virgins equals, not only no new generations born, but a large group of men completely unattached to women, and an active force in politics and culture. What could possibly go wrong?

Anonymous said...

Oh give me a break! You're using fictional characters as data??! Come on, whiskey, you know better than that!

Now for full disclosure, my wife is 7 1/2 years younger than me, and my parents were six years apart, but those are exceptions and not the rule. How many couples do you know like that?

Anonymous said...

That the authorities would hide the results of the collection of statistics on marriage, race, and crime indicates that the hope of a technocracy, a government based on real, measurable understanding, has vanished. The professional governing class (that is lawyers) instead prefers to hire corrupt statistician or bury the findings of honest collectors.

The rejection of science as a tool for government will lead to bleak future, since the governing class will substitute its own hallucinatory prejudices for reality when it choose to frame and enact law.

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