An Older Woman, A Younger Man

An ancient Russian joke:

Patient: Doctor, is there a medicine I can use to prevent my girlfriends from become pregnant?
Doctor: Kefir.
Patient: Should I drink it before or after sex?
Doctor: Instead of.

I have a more pleasurable suggestion than drinking kefir: date postmenopausal women. There are many other reasons why men enjoy dating older women, but since my blog is about mathematics, I would like to dig into some relevant numbers.

We know that boys are born more often than girls, and men die earlier than women. Somewhere around age 30 the proportion in population switches from more boys to more girls. And it gets more skewed with age. So there’s a deficit of older men. In addition, a big part of the population is married, making the disproportions in singles group more pronounced. So I decided to look at the numbers to see how misshaped the dating scene is.

This 2008 data comes from the U.S. government census website’s table “Marital Status of the Population by Sex and Age: 2008. (Numbers in thousands. Civilian non-institutionalized population.)” To calculate the number of singles, I summed up the widowed, divorced and never married columns.

Age Group Single Male Single Female Ratio M/F
Total 44,707 51,293 0.87
15 to 17 years 6,729 6,513 1.03
18 to 24 years 13,074 11,848 1.10
25 to 29 years 6,639 5,224 1.27
30 to 34 years 3,901 3,343 1.17
35 to 39 years 3,354 2,965 1.13
40 to 44 years 3,410 3,270 1.04
45 to 49 years 3,476 3,591 0.97
50 to 54 years 2,979 3,385 0.88
55 to 59 years 2,309 3,123 0.74
60 to 64 years 1,552 2,746 0.57
65 to 69 years 1,082 2,423 0.47
70 to 74 years 787 2,162 0.36
75 to 79 years 790 2,391 0.33
80 to 84 years 685 2,430 0.28
85 years and over 669 2,391 0.28

These data alone cannot explain the dating situation. For example, I have no way of knowing what proportion of each gender isn’t interested in dating the opposite sex, or even in dating altogether. But the trend is quite clear: the proportion of men in younger categories is much higher. That implies that there is less competition for older women. So those young men who are open to dating much older women might have more options and those options might be more interesting.

I just turned 50 and plan to return to dating again. Looking at the data I see that there are 11 million single men older than me and 34 million who are younger than me. If I were to pick a single man randomly, I am three times more likely to end up with a younger man.

Supposedly we live in a free society, where people can do what they want as long as they do not harm anyone else. Still our society often disapproves of women dating much younger men. Consider this definition from Wikipedia:

“Cougar — a woman over 40 who sexually pursues a much younger men.”

This derogatory term portrays such women as predatory. Not only is there nothing wrong with women dating younger men, but it makes no sense for older women to ignore the imbalance of the dating scene and be closed to relationships with much younger men. After all, the demographics are also affected by the fact that women live longer, probably because of their healthy life style, non-risky behavior and positive attitude to life.

Can someone explain to me again why sane, healthy, non-risky women with positive attitudes to life are called “cougars”?

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10 Comments

  1. Qiaochu Yuan:

    From an evolutionary perspective the difference is clear: older men are capable of reproducing at any age and older women are not. So as far as passing genes it’s a good strategy for older men to pursue younger women but “pointless” for older women to pursue younger men. (I mean this as an explanation, not an endorsement, of prevailing attitudes.)

    For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced “cougar” is an entirely derogatory term.

  2. Sachin Shanbhag:

    Thanks for this fascinating post.

    What I find intriguing is what happens around age 30? And has the “inflection” point always been 30? What does this mean for polygamy?

  3. colorblind:

    “Can someone explain to me again why sane, healthy, non-risky women with positive attitudes to life are called “cougars”?”

    You’re presupposing they are. I’m not sure that the sets “sane, healthy, non-risky women with positive attitudes” and “women over 40 who sexually pursue much younger men” have anything other than an empty intersection. I think the American conservative viewpoint would be that people with “positive attitudes” (what a loaded term!) don’t “sexually pursue” other people.
    Not that I personally subscribe to that theory. But in my < 40 years of experience, the women who pursue younger men usually aren’t doing so JUST for sexual purposes (feeling young, control aspect, etc.) . They may call themselves cougars, usually because they feel “hot and sexy”, but by definiton they aren’t as the pursuit isn’t truly/primarily sexual.

  4. Pseudonym:

    WARNING: Horrible imagery follows.

    The word “cougar”, as I understand it, used to be a slang term for a certain type of older woman who hung around bars or clubs and picked up the last of the younger men left at the end of the night. The idea is that this specific type of older woman is acting like an ambush predator.

    Only very recently did it come to refer to any older woman who dates men who are younger by some margin.

  5. Kate Nowak:

    Preach it, sister.

  6. Paul Winter:

    Felines are beautiful and alluring creatures.

    As we grow older most of us become more assertive and confident (this is a generalization and, along with all other generalizations, has many counterexamples but still holds true “often enough”). There is something beautiful and alluring in that confidence and assertiveness (whether it be male or female). I’m going to have to join Qiaochu Yuan in stating that I’m not at all convinced that “cougar” is a derogatory term. I’ve certainly never thought of it as such.

    If this term had been intended as derogatory, I think a “mascot” with much less visual appeal would have been chosen….

  7. Tanya Khovanova:

    I am glad that you think that “cougar” is not a derogatory term.

  8. misha:

    Probably because people feel resentful and envious towards such women. But why would you care? Just enjoy and be happy. There always will be losers saying nasty things about the successful.

  9. Greg:

    somewhat related:

    http://xkcd.com/314/

  10. Karen:

    I feel this pain, SO deeply! Live your life! Enjoy each other! My partner is 9 years younger than me. If we are happy, then maybe you should ask yourself, hmmmm, could that be me?