A couple of people sent me the link last week to this hilarious Onion News Network video: Obama Releases 500,000 men from the National Strategic Bachelor Reserve. (You’ll need to watch a very short ad first before the two-minute spoof starts. There is mild profanity within the video as well.) The report speaks of an “Eligible Male Task Force” designed to combat the critical shortage of “Men who are Looking for Something Serious,” and the graphics are splendid. (There’s even a subtle jab at Henry Waxman, my splendid congressman). Watch it all twice.
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since the “man shortage” became a topic of national media hype. The genesis of the scare was a single Newsweek article from June 1986: Too Late for Prince Charming?
The traumatic news came buried in an arid demographic study titled, innocently enough, “Marriage Patterns in the United States.” But the dire statistics confirmed what everybody suspected all along: that many women who seem to have it allâ€”good looks and good jobs, advanced degrees and high salariesâ€”will never have mates. According to the report, white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.
That whopping bit of hyperbole in bold (as if there’s ever been a 2.6% chance of being killed by a terrorist) became the “killer quote” that drove the whole discussion. Even when the report (as well as the rhetorical overkill about it) was debunked, the fears that the Elaine Salholz article aroused remained. Nearly 25 years later, I still occasionally hear people use that “greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than meeting a good guy” trope.
The most savvy exploiters of the fears the Salholz piece aroused were social conservatives, who saw the chance to blame feminism for the “problem.” Women, right-wingers argued, needed to honor immutable biological truths, starting with the fact that both their fertility and their desirability peak in their late teens and early twenties. Rather than being misled by feminists into focusing on education and career, young women should leverage their sexual and reproductive power when it is at its maximum, while they can still “land a good man.” (Robert Herrick, call your office.) The conservative message was simple: focusing on career and personal fulfillment when you’re young in the expectation of easily finding a man when you’re ready to settle down was a recipe for heartache and loneliness. The feminists are lying to you, the far right said; we’re telling you the truth. Look at the facts.
Except the facts didn’t turn out to be true, as countless follow-up reports on the “marriage crunch” demonstrated. The marriage crunch, if it exists as a problem at all, is found among those least likely to go to college. Those who have most successfully made use of feminism’s promise are more likely to wed (and have children after marriage rather than before) than their poorer sisters. Even the social conservatives have changed their tune, pointing out that the marriage culture is thriving among urban liberal “elites” while it falls apart among the white and non-white urban and rural working classes. (This time, it’s feminism’s fault for making working-class men without college educations feel useless and unappreciated. The villain always remains the same.) Continue reading