I was once engaged to the man of my dreams. Fortunately, it didn't last. Our biggest problem? I made more money than he did. I assured him he'd soon be ahead (and he eventually was). But his fragile ego couldn't survive the temporary income gap.
Well-educated, high-income women have always had trouble finding mates. That's because men were always expected to be of higher status than their wives, or at least equal in status to them. Hypergamy – the act of marrying up – has traditionally only gone one way. The female secretary can marry her male boss, but the female professor rarely marries the plumber. Not so long ago, it was thought that too much education would ruin a girl's marriage chances, and that was not untrue. My own family had more than its share of old maids with university degrees.
Times have changed. Today, the hottest properties on the marriage market are women with newly minted Harvard law degrees and high earning prospects. The more educated your daughter is, the more likely she is to have eligible suitors begging for her hand. "In a reversal of historical trends, elite women have become the most likely to marry," June Carbone and Naomi Cahn conclude in their new book Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family.
The good news doesn't stop there. Marriages between highly educated partners are now the most stable marriages of all.
Elite women are more happily married than ever before, and they are far less likely to get divorced than women further down the income scale. Not coincidentally, they are also far more likely to have husbands who regard marriage as a partnership of equals and who take both financial and parenting obligations seriously.
What happened? The answer has as much to do with the changing economy as with feminism. Like the economy, the marriage market has become increasingly stratified and class-based. An increasing number of successful, high-earning men are concentrated at the top, while the pool of reliable, stably employed men at the bottom is shrinking. Men at the top don't want to marry the secretary any more – they want to marry their equals, for reasons of both status and earning power. After all, two professional incomes will buy you a nicer life than one. They also want to make the best possible genetic investment in their offspring.
"Educated men and women are drawn to spouses they think will help them produce the children likely to thrive in the contemporary knowledge-based economy," wrote social commentator Kay Hymowitz, whom the authors quote. "… The preference for alpha kids is the reason there is a luxury market for Ivy League egg and sperm donors."
Women now outstrip men across the board in educational attainment. But men still dominate the upper-income ranks, and the supply of elite, high-earning women is still relatively scarce. Which means that your average female Harvard law graduate can pretty well negotiate her own terms. As sociologist Christine Schwartz has put it, "Men may have begun to compete for high-earning women just as women have traditionally competed for high-earning men."
Or, as my husband advises his young male colleagues, "Find a good earner with a dental plan."
We hear constant laments that the long march toward full equality has stalled, that women are stuck where they were a decade or two ago and that society has not progressed. But it's not true. Consider the increasing number of marriages in which wives are more educated than their husbands. This used to be a recipe for divorce, but no more. In fact, in more than 60 per cent of heterosexual U.S. marriages between 2005 and 2009, the wife has had more education than her husband, according to a new study co-authored by Ms. Schwartz and data analyst Hongyun Han. And that's okay.
"These results are consistent with a shift away from rigid gender specialization toward more flexible, egalitarian partnerships," the authors write, "and they provide an important counterpoint to claims that progress toward gender equality in heterosexual relationships has stalled."
If you doubt it, just spend time in any leafy upper-middle-class enclave. Never have any fathers been so involved and attentive. They pack their infants on their chests before going to Starbucks, they pick them up at daycare and they chauffeur them to endless soccer games. The more educated the parents, the more equal the parenting.
So that's the good news. The bad news is that marriage markets are diverging as never before. At the other end of the ladder, low-skilled, poorly educated men are increasingly shut out of job and marriage markets. Women lower down the ladder face a dwindling supply of eligible mates. So they marry less and divorce more. "Young women who used to get pregnant and marry the father still get pregnant," say Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn. "It's just that they no longer marry the father."
The marriage gap goes hand in hand with the fatherhood gap. More kids than ever before have absent fathers with little means or inclination to invest in them. It is not apparent that all-day kindergarten can make up for these deficits.
As for the former man of my dreams, he eventually made partner and married another high-earning professional like himself. And I met the man who became my husband, who never was too hung up on status. In fact, he says the best thing about me is my pension plan.