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Does (cohort) size matter?

Summary:
In the US, the portion of young men between the ages of 18 to 34 who report having at least one partner has fallen substantially in recent years (sorry for the small image size):Charts similar to the one above have prompted talk of a sex recession. Yet worries that Millennials are killing sex (as well as napkins, diamonds, and casual dining) may be premature. This data comes from the GSS, which samples a few hundred people between the ages of 18 and 34. The 95 percent confidence intervals around these estimates, shown by the whisker bars on the chart, are very large. For example, the margin of error on the 2018 estimate for men (77.5% with at least one partner) is 7.5 percentage points. In my submission to the annual Macleans Charts to Watch compilation here I compare the GSS numbers

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In the US, the portion of young men between the ages of 18 to 34 who report having at least one partner has fallen substantially in recent years (sorry for the small image size):

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.29.56 PM

Charts similar to the one above have prompted talk of a sex recession. Yet worries that Millennials are killing sex (as well as napkins, diamonds, and casual dining) may be premature. This data comes from the GSS, which samples a few hundred people between the ages of 18 and 34. The 95 percent confidence intervals around these estimates, shown by the whisker bars on the chart, are very large. For example, the margin of error on the 2018 estimate for men (77.5% with at least one partner) is 7.5 percentage points.

In my submission to the annual Macleans Charts to Watch compilation here I compare the GSS numbers to those obtained from the much larger Canadian Community Health Survey. I find a smaller, but similar, downwards trend in young men's sexual activity rates north of the border. With the larger sample, I could pinpoint the downturn more precisely: it is concentrated among 20 to 24 year olds.

It does seem that these numbers are picking up something real. The question is, what?

You are free to leave your favourite theory in the comments. Here's mine: cohort size matters. Let's look at a similar chart calculated for 35 to 49 year olds - who are doing just fine, from a partnering point of view:


Sexgss35to49

Here is comparable data for 50 to 64 year olds, where there is perhaps a slight downwards trend, and a big gap between male and female sexual activity rates:

Sexgss50to64

If substantially more men between 50 and 64 are sexually active than women, who are these middle-aged men having sex with? It could be that men overstate their number of sexual partners while women understate theirs - but over/understating should affect the numbers for all age groups, not just the 50 to 64 year olds. Some men are having sex with each other - but  some women are too, so this cannot explain the male-female divergence either.

The most likely scenario is that a number of men in their 50s and early 60s are having sex with younger women, that is women in their late 30s and 40s. What do men 35 to 49 do in response? They too have sex with younger women, raising female sexual activity rates in the 18 to 34 year old range. What about men in the 18 to 34 year old range? They can date younger women too - yet there are hard limits on this dating-younger-women strategy. Consequently, a number of the youngest men find themselves without partners.

Older men have desired younger women for millennia. What is historically unprecedented, however, is number of older men relative to the number of younger women. Here is the US population pyramid for 2018, grabbed from here:

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 10.06.21 AM

Men over 50 constitute a greater portion of the US population today than at any other point in human history. The number of young women, relative to the number of older men, is steadily shrinking.

This is, I believe, one reason why an increasing portion of young adult men are without sexual partners: cohort size matters. To the extent that women, on average, partner with men slightly older than themselves, men born before, or at the front end of, a baby boom have a wide range of possible partners. Conversely, men born at the end of, or just after, a baby boom have relatively few. The reverse is true for women. The hard times facing men born in the mid to late 1990s is just another case in point.

Note: Thanks to Derek Mikola for suggesting the title for this blog. The .do file used to generate these charts can be downloaded here: Download GSS sex activity do file They were generated with Daniel Bischof's colorblind graph schemes: https://danbischof.com/2015/02/04/stata-figure-schemes/

Frances Woolley
I am a Professor of Economics at Carleton University, where I have taught since 1990. My research centres on families and public policy. My most-cited work is on modelling family-decision making, measuring inequality within the household, feminist economics, and tax-benefit policy towards families. I hold a BA from Simon Fraser University, an MA from Queen’s, and completed my doctorate at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Tony Atkinson.

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