Supply, Demand, and the Rise of the Man-Child
By Bryan Caplan
Consider a traditional society where all the men sell their labor and all the women keep house. You might think there’s only one market, but there are actually two: The labor market and the mating market. Men use their wages to supplement their masculine charms (if any) when they woo. In the labor market, the compensation that employers offer workers adjusts to balance the supply and demand for labor. In the mating market, the quality of life that men offer women adjusts to balance the supply and demand for women.*
Note well: Much more than money matters in both markets. When men consider an employment offer, or women consider a marriage proposal, both men and women weigh intrinsic satisfaction against material reward. Still, money does matter. If there’s a high male/female imbalance, women can end up spending most of the money despite the fact that they’ve never received a paycheck.
Question: What happens in this model when the demand for (exclusively male) labor goes up? Wages rise, of course. But so does demand for women – and women’s quality of life. This might simply mean that women enjoy higher material consumption. But it could just as easily mean that women get more leisure, better birthday presents, or a big church wedding. When demand for women goes up, men who refuse to somehow match the new market price end up alone.
No doubt this model oversimplifies. But it’s hard to deny that it’s roughly true. When a guy gets a big raise, his wife gets a new kitchen. When a guy gets fired, his wife goes hungry too. The link between the labor market and the mating market is the best example of “trickle-down economics” around.
Next question: What happens if we move this model into the modern world? Specifically, what happens in the mating market when women start earning money of their own? The obvious answer is just to flip the initial model around. If higher wages for men lead to higher quality of life for women, we’d expect higher wages for women to lead to higher quality of life for men. And what do most men see as a “higher quality of life”? Among other things: Less commitment, lower maturity, and lower expectations of financial support. In short, the chance to be a man-child.
Funny thing: If Kay Hymowitz’s description of modern malehood in Manning Up is even vaguely accurate, this is exactly what we’re seeing. Women are more economically successful, but increasingly dissatisfied with male behavior. Men are less economically successful, but pay a surprisingly small price in the mating market. There’s no big puzzle here. A simple supply-and-demand story, with no mention of “feminism” or “family values,” fits the facts rather well.
A sophisticated supply-and-demand story can do even better. When women have zero labor income, you’d expect them to care a lot about men’s income. They might even marry men they loathe to get a roof over their heads. As women’s income rises, however, women can afford to focus more on men’s non-pecuniary traits.
The upshot: Women’s demand for men isn’t just higher than ever; the composition of their demand has changed. Income and income potential still matter. But women now focus more on looks, machismo, coolness, and other “alpha” traits. Holding charisma constant, working harder just doesn’t attract women the way it used to. The result: Less desirable men often give up on women altogether – further tilting the effective male/female ratio in favor of the remaining men. And both kinds of men act like boys: The less desirable men have little to lose, and the more desirable men can get away with it.
To be fair, I’ve never dated anyone other than my wife. I could be missing something. If so, please enlighten me.
* Note: Since this is a barter market, we could just as easily say
that “the quality of life that women offer men adjusts to balance the
supply of men with the demand for men.”