Supply, Demand, and the Rise of the Man-Child
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.”
Aug 17 2011 at 4:04pm
Great post, interesting. Thanks. However…
“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.”
You apply the trickle-down to men who already have there own source of income. A flaw I think. Different but not necessarily higher quality?
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.”
Even if I agreed with “higher quality”, it does not follow that “higher quality of life” means acting the man-child unless marriage was a used as a way to simply satisfy urges. We don’t have to do that these days eh?
Aug 17 2011 at 4:07pm
I often fantasize about marrying a doctor and hiring a maid. I could do free-lance work and play sports all day (and read econglog). It’s just a fantasy, but if it were to come true I know I would only get it because of my humor and boyish charm.
Your post does make me wonder whether women being attracted to rich men is a natural attraction or a practical calculation.
Aug 17 2011 at 4:48pm
Maybe. But here’s a simpler model (via the Roissysphere):
The standard marriage contract changed, to make it more advantageous to women and less advantageous to men. That created an excess supply of women/excess demand for men at the existing “wage” in the mating market. So the equilibrium wage rose for men and fell for women.
Men’s response to Kay Hymowitz (as you see from comments): “What the **** is in it for me?”
Aug 17 2011 at 5:15pm
Things may be moving in the direction you are indicating, but their are still limits that seem to be biological rather then market oriented.
Specifically, men are more attracted to women of child bearing age. I doubt “boy toys” will outnumber “trophy wives” anytime soon.
Aug 17 2011 at 5:32pm
If higher wages for women lead to higher quality of life for men, how come men don’t demand it in potential mates?
See, for example:
As far as I can tell, other than the fact that it’s easier to meet women in the same field, men have zero and maybe negative reactions to female income and career. Female income is not desirable and female careerism may even hurt desirability. This is just an observation, I’m not trying to pass a moral judgment or say whether this is “proper.”
Aug 17 2011 at 7:05pm
If higher wages for women lead to higher quality of life for men, how come men don’t demand it in potential mates?
I strongly suspect that demand for higher wages does kick in a little later in life after kids and a mortgage.
As far as wives’ wages as a factor in divorce rates goes, I remember reading that a wife earning from 75-100% of the husband’s salary minimized the risk.
That sounds about right to me. It’s an obvious contribution to the household (dollars are a nice solid metric as opposed to hand-wavy house-work and child-raising) and yet it’s not so high as to bruise our sensitive self-worth (and make us feel guilty for not contributing as much to the house-work and child-rearing…)
Aug 17 2011 at 7:24pm
I like the idea of looking at mating as supply and demand but I’m bothered by the simple women earn more thus men get more benefits to spend as they wish. As I see it, women leaving the home gives them more leverage not less.
I agree the economics has changed but I would argue things like contraception and independant incomes for women have greatly reduced the cost to women to being in uncommitted relationships. Lower commitment relationships lead to less of a need to signal as a good mate since you don’t have to winnow prior to trying being a couple. I think in the past a lot of this signaling is what you are describing as a grown up man instead of a boy man.
Aug 17 2011 at 7:39pm
> I strongly suspect that demand for higher wages
> does kick in a little later in life after kids
> and a mortgage.
That may be so, but it’s not relevant here if it has nothing to do with mate selection.
I also doubt it’s common, but that’s besides the point.
I think the evidence presented refutes Bryan’s hypothesis. It’s consistent with Nick Rowe’s hypothesis, but not really supporting. Regarding Nick’s thoughts, I’d be interested in knowing how aware men in their 20s are of divorce law. I suspect they’re a lot more aware of their ability to get women to provide sex without marriage.
Aug 17 2011 at 7:49pm
Fascinating post. I completely agree that “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.”
Aug 17 2011 at 8:51pm
The upshot is for individual men, not society right? Since there’s no payoff for working harder, society is a net loser.
Divorce/family law is important. The deck is stacked very heavily in favor of women. Thus, a lot of this behavior may be the market balancing the legal benefits conferred on women. The feminists have priced many women out of the marriage market, and if there’s not a good hope of marriage, men have no need or desire to act “responsibly.”
Contrast that with China, where the courts just ruled that the party that pays the down payment gets the house in a divorce. A big factor was that parents of the son often make the down payment. In China, women still want a man with a good job and a house, and you can smell the competition in the job market. No doubt some of that shows up in the GDP.
Aug 17 2011 at 10:22pm
‘Jim, given your capitalist crap and ‘greed is good’ routine, why would you put up so much dough to put her through med school, but you won’t buy a new kitchen table? Or shoes? And if you link me to another blog post by some economist somewhere, I’m going to scream.’
*fingers in ears*
Aug 18 2011 at 3:26am
It seems like a good way to test these hypotheses would be to study homosexual relationships, especially in areas where gay marriage is legalized. If Bryan is correct, gay men would be more likely to show “man child” traits, since their mate market consists of men who support themselves (if gay stereotypes are at all accurate this prediction may be born out). I am not entirely sure what Bryan’s theory predicts for lesbians.
If Nick Rowe and the “Roissysphere” are correct, gays and lesbians should have a higher marriage rate over time than heterosexuals, since the marriage contract benefits both parties equally.
I must also mention that I consider these developments to be a good thing, overall. It’s good that women can have a fulfilling life outside the home and it’s good that men don’t have to work harder than they’d really like to. People who think these trends are bad focus exclusively on the costs to one gender while ignoring the benefits to the other. Hymowitz focuses on the suffering of women who don’t like man-children, while ignoring the happiness men derive from being man-children. Roissy focuses on the suffering of “betas” who have slightly more difficulty getting laid than before, while ignoring the happiness of women who have fulfilling careers.
I think that the recipe for relationship happiness in a nontraditional world is not focusing on whether your mate has desirable masculine or feminine traits, but instead focus on if they enjoy the same pastimes you do. In other words, the person who is the ideal mate is someone who you’d enjoy hanging out with, even if they were the same sex that you are. This has worked for me, although I must admit that it’s easy because I’m heterosocial, my fiancee was a good friend of mine long before we started dating and my circle of friends has a 50/50 sex ratio. Someone who only makes friends with people of the same sex might have trouble following my advice.
I don’t think this is correct for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you have to remember that the only reason men are working less is because women are working more. The losses caused by reduced wealth creation by men are likely more than made up for by the gains caused by women generating much more wealth.
Secondly, since men make up 49% of society, it seems like society has gained quite a lot in granting them the freedom to be more themselves. Similarly, since women make up 51% of society, the fact that they can now lead fulfilling careers out side of home has benefited society.
Aug 18 2011 at 4:57am
I think you are mostly correct but I think it’s also another culture war coming, i.e. regardless of the economics of it, some of us blame the society and the culture we like fraying as a result of this *progress*. Restless young horny underemployed man boys with no sense of responsibility towards women/children have always been a recipe for disaster throughout history with it’s latest spotlight in the London riots and flash mob crimes popping up all over the US. I know we magically are different than our forefathers but I don’t think we are going to escape this one.
Aug 18 2011 at 6:06am
[Comments removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the email@example.com to request restoring your comments. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]
Aug 18 2011 at 9:15am
Evan, it might occur to you that in homosexual relationships there’s more different than just marriage law. Just sayin.
If I had to put a theory forward, and obviously it’s not original, it’s that the pill lets women offer sex without marriage. The condom was not a good substitute. When men can get sex without marriage, they don’t see why they should marry.
I’ll buy that family law changes have been strongly in a direction that makes marriage a worse deal for guys, I just question how much the average 20-something thinks about that sort of thing.
The right question to ask if you buy this is “since it’s so lousy a deal, why are women offering sex before marriage?” I suspect the answer is that we needed a generation or two of data to figure that out, since superficially sex seems good to them even without marriage, and that you’ll see the trend reverse. You may also see evolution start to weed out the folks who want sex and not kids.
Aug 18 2011 at 9:37am
Twentysomething men have older brothers, uncles, bosses, and fathers with intimate knowledge of divorce law. That suffices to give a capsule preview.
Aug 18 2011 at 10:37am
I think these trends are positive for many adults. They are not positive for children. The rise of children living without their father is negative for children and for society.
Aug 18 2011 at 10:48am
The best response to this I found is from the Real Savoy.
Society has changed. Women have more power over their own life, and there is less pressure to conform to expectations from family, religion, society at large, etc. …. many women are deciding to do something with their lives other than be the traditional housewife of 50 years ago. It sucks to be a guy today who wants the housewife of 50 years ago, since there are less of them, but people have more choice on how to live their lives now, and that’s a good thing.
But guess what? Men also have more power over their own life, …. So now with more choice on how to life their lives, many men are deciding to do something with their lives other than be the traditional husband of 50 years ago. It sucks to be a women today who wants the husband of 50 years ago, since there are less of them, but people have more choice on how to live their lives now, and that’s a good thing
Aug 18 2011 at 5:00pm
Two other points.
A lot of the research her paper is about education. There are moor opportunities for men that require little or no education, and this is touched on. It isn’t just the disappearing blue collar jobs though. ‘Uneducated entrpreneurism, especially at the top end, is male dominated.
Also, when we think in terms of evolutionary psychology, and what ‘guys are really after, can’t we attribute manchildhood in part to ‘easy’ women? Why work for something that’s free? That’s either the main issue, or one we’re not supposed to talk about at all.
Aug 18 2011 at 5:25pm
> Twentysomething men have older brothers, uncles,
> bosses, and fathers with intimate knowledge of
> divorce law. That suffices to give a capsule
That doesn’t sound unreasonable, but if it was so, wouldn’t you see more prenups? The best I’ve been able to find on the internet is that something like 5 or 10 percent of first-time marriages involved a prenup.
Comments are closed.