Here at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture we think good data is very important. Too often on the subject of family we see news stories or editorials that end up being more heat than light because they aren’t properly contextualized. While emotion and personal experience are important in shaping the way that we talk about modern conceptions of the role of the family, without good data it’s difficult to understand how prevalent certain family models and behaviors are, and just how often they are successful at achieving a variety of aims.
We have the expertise to provide data-based answers to your many questions. Every other week we’ll answer a reader’s question about family, relationships, sex, culture, or gender roles using the best data available. This is not really an advice column, so we’ll just be giving you the facts. But we think facts are often better than advice anyway. As always, we hope the numbers help.
I started with my colleagues' questions. While they are curious about many things, today I’ll answer the question, “Just how many couples are substantially different in age?” For next time we invite you to submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll answer one of them.
So just how common are large age differences between intimate partners? Most people have heard stories of young, attractive women dating or marrying much older men. Perhaps the most prominent recent example, Donald Sterling, the billionaire ex-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was forced to sell his team after tapes of his racist remarks were reportedly released by his much younger girlfriend V. Stiviano. Although perhaps one of the more extreme recent cases of large age differences between romantic partners, Sterling is not the only such case. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were more than 20 years apart, as are Donald Trump and his wife Melanie. But are these celebrity couples really that different from the rest of the population?
To find out I turned to the American Community Survey, a yearly survey of a large sample of Americans run by the US Census Bureau. For this analysis I use a sample from even years between 2000 and 2012.
Even in an era of increased gender equality, men still tend to marry slightly younger women. Only 20 percent of men who married since the year 2000 have been younger than their wives while 68 percent were older. (13 percent were the same age at the time of the survey). But age differences are generally not very extreme. The median man married a woman just 2 years younger than him. The most common response was that the husband was 1 year older than his wife, while same aged spouses came in a close second.
But what about those whose spouses differ from them significantly in age? 8.3 percent of men and only 2.0 percent of women who married since 2000 were over 10 years older than their spouse. Although a bit rare, these cases are hardly extreme. When we look at those who are 20 years apart of more we find that about 1.5 percent of men and just 0.3 percent of women report that they married a spouse at least 20 years younger than they were.
Stories of celebrities like Donald Trump and Tom Cruise marrying significantly younger women might lead some to believe that men (and occasionally women) with more income or social status may be more apt to marry someone substantially younger than they are. The theory is that they trade wealth and social status for youth and beauty. After all, according to data from OKCupid, an online dating giant, men’s age has almost no correlation with the age of women they find most attractive. Men of all ages on their site are most attracted--at least physically--to women in their early 20’s. But does this mean rich older men actually end up with younger women?
Not really, or at least not more than other men. Among those with household incomes over $200,000 annually, 10.3 percent of men who married within the year prior to the survey wed a spouse who was more than 10 years younger, while 2.2 percent married someone over 20 years younger. Yet, rates for the low income men weren’t much different.
So despite all the stories we hear about rich old men marrying younger women, we find that marrying a much younger woman is actually just as characteristic of low income men as it is of affluent men.
marrying a much younger woman is actually just as characteristic of low income men as it is of affluent men.
For women the trend is different. Lower income women are much more likely to be substantially older than their spouse compared to women with high incomes, although in any income bracket, women are less likely to be substantially older.
The stereotype of the rich old man and the attractive young woman is actually relatively uncommon. It may be that the super rich are likely to marry substantially younger spouses (the ACS doesn’t have the sample size to tell us much about those on the far upper end of the income distribution), but it doesn’t seem to happen very often with those who are moderately wealthy, and at least no more than for lower income couples. Instead, it would seem that most people like to match closely with their spouse on age regardless of income level.
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