Study of Attraction
Dating website OkCupid collected data showing the most attractive ages to both men and women.
Illustration by Mona Chalabi. Source: “Dataclysm” by Christian Rudder.
I Want My 2.3 Bonus Years
by Mona Chalabi
If I could prolong my time as a young adult by, say, 2.3 years, here is a list of things I would like to do:
• Go to more parties. Preferably wild parties that I can think about, years later, at mild parties.
• Get fit (i.e., get at least one ab before I die). This, I’m told, is easier to achieve when you’re young.
• Have more romantic partners. Preferably ones with abs.
• Get a bit higher up the career ladder a bit earlier on. That would probably boost my earnings, giving me more financial security. I could use that money to go to more parties, get a membership to a fancy gym and maybe even meet a romantic partner on the ab machines.
Most men who date women don’t fantasize about what they would do if they had these bonus years, they simply get them. In two-thirds of heterosexual couples, the man is at least a year older than his partner. The average age difference is 2.3 years according to the Census Bureau.
I know what you’re thinking: “What’s dating got to do with your weird list?” You’re right, in theory — life doesn’t stop once you settle down, so you could complete your own 2.3-year list regardless of your relationship status. But in reality, most couples who do commit long-term end up having children, so the age gap carries over into parenthood. The average age of a new father in the United States is 31 years, compared with 26 years for a new mother.
Typically, becoming a parent has an enormous impact on your health, your career and your ability to party. It’s already bad enough that those burdens are more likely to be shouldered by mothers than fathers. The fact that women end the childless part of our lives earlier than our male partners is just salt in the wound. And looking even farther down the line, the bigger the age difference, the more likely that it will be women who take care of their male partners in old age.
Outraged at these numbers, I send my mom a text outlining my plans to find a much younger man and redress this scourge. She replies, “Women are more mature than men.” I roll my eyes. If there is any truth to her claim, maybe it’s because men know they can settle down at a later age. Where’s the incentive to grow up before you have to? Before I can reply, I get the rest of her message: “The French president’s marriage is an exception, and it is too early to know what is next.” Harsh, Mom.
Maybe she’s right, though. I change tactics and organize a date with a fellow 30-year-old. He waits in the garden of a Brooklyn bar while I get us two spicy margaritas. When I come back, I ask him what he is looking for.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you want something serious?”
Leaning back in the sunlight, he smiles and says, “Oh, no, I don’t think so. I’m not in a rush.”
Hmm. My eyes fall upon his sleeveless T-shirt. I imagine pouring my drink on it. My friend Jon tells me that these are “intrusive thoughts” and everyone has them. Which gives me permission to also imagine setting the shirt on fire. Ah, peaceful lakes! Birdsong!
I know I’m not a fun first date. I want to ask prospective partners whether they want to become parents and when — and excuse me? You haven’t given it much thought? A shrug from a man who already has a couple of gray hairs strikes me as wild arrogance.
This arrogance has, as I see it, two main causes — one, a belief that their spermatozoa are good for a very long time, indeed, and two, a belief that they could get a younger woman if they wanted to. Let me examine the evidence for each of those male beliefs; fertility first.
Your sperm is not immortal. A study that tracked 8,559 pregnancies found that “conception during a 12-month period was 30 percent less likely for men over age 40 years as compared with men younger than age 30 years.”
That research was gathered in 2000 and was one of the few studies that focused on male fertility. See, scientists have invested a lot of time in poking and prodding women to understand conception, but only a small fraction of those studies have controlled for the age of the father. In other words, all that data we have about how women in their late 30s are struggling to get pregnant doesn’t take into consideration the fact that many of those women are trying to conceive with men who are in their 40s.
Men are much less fooled when it comes to that second belief — that they could get a younger woman if they wanted to. I’m not just basing this on the Census Bureau data I cited. There’s also the information gleaned from OkCupid’s millions of preferences. The dating site’s researchers found that most conversations take place between an older man and a younger woman and in almost half of them, the age gap is at least five years.
But men might still be mistaken about just how much younger their next partner could be. That same OkCupid data shows that even when men are in their late 40s, they carry on looking at the profiles of women age 20 to 24 (women, by contrast look at older men’s profiles as they get older).
Where do 50-year-old men get this strange impression that they could date a 23-year-old? Perhaps it’s their TV screens. When New York magazine looked at the careers of 10 leading men, it found that as they aged, their onscreen love interests didn’t. Take Liam Neeson. In 1990, he appeared alongside Frances McDormand, who was five years younger than he. By the time he starred in “Third Person” in 2013, the 61-year-old Neeson’s lover was played by 29-year-old Olivia Wilde.
We are socialized into thinking that men are like wine, they get better with time. Whereas women are like cheese, they get blue veins and start to stink. At some point, I subconsciously signed up, too. I find George Clooney hot and Justin Bieber not (Clooney is 26 years older than me and Bieber is seven years younger).
Do I sound angry? Maybe, but I’m also scared. I inspect my body when I step out of the shower and I can see the skin loosening above my knees. I don’t want to choose between being single or dating a much older man with much older knees. I think, maybe, I could deal with dying if the person I love is creaking along at the same rate I am.
So, this is where I ask for help from other single women seeking men. Sign a pledge with me here today. Not of celibacy (where’s the fun in that?), but let’s end this scourge once and for all by committing to contemporaries.
I understand your reluctance. Perhaps we’ve dipped a toe in the younger male waters and been burned by the sleeveless shirts, the sheetless beds, the unbridled selfishness. But sisters! We must persevere. If not for ourselves, then for one another. I hereby swear that I will not take an eligible older man out of the dating pool — to do so would be to slap future-me in the face but it would also signal to men my age that it’s O.K., you have time. Time is too precious to donate — so don’t give away 2.3 years of it.
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