BOOK EXTRACT: No Country for Old Maids – 'Partnering down'

More women than men have higher education levels, so should they 'partner down?'

The excess of women aged 25-49 compared with men living in New Zealand has been described as a “man drought.” The author integrates interview material, statistics and cultural commentary in order to demonstrate why the issue needs a different point of view – that of women themselves. This extract examines the impact of education levels on relations between the sexes

Smart is as smart does – partnering down educationally
"I think there’s a lot of different ways to be smart. Just cause someone didn’t go to uni or whatever doesn’t mean they’re not smart."  Jennifer, journalist, 30

According to the 2013 Census, it is poorly educated New Zealanders – of both sexes – who are most likely to be single.1 Of note, however, is the difference between the number of unpartnered men and unpartnered women among those whose formal education ended when they left secondary school.

In the 2013 Census, 50,082 New Zealand-resident men in their 30s stated that they were ‘never married and never in a civil union’, and had also had no formal education beyond secondary schooling. There were only 4566 fewer women in the same situation.

By contrast, of those 30-39-year-old New Zealand residents who were formally unpartnered but held a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 10,275 more were women than men. This data included those in same-sex partnerships. For women who had not embarked upon a formal partnership by the time they reached their 30s, those with a degree were half as likely to be able to partner with a man in their age bracket who shared their educational background than were those women who had only a high school qualification, or no qualification at all.

Census data counts only those couples who cohabit or have formalised their partnership in the eyes of the state, and the numbers discussed above cannot be taken as faithful indicators of the partnership rates of 30-39-year-old men and women living in New Zealand.

It is significant, however, that their implications are broadly substantiated by the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, whose survey question allows respondents simply to specify whether they are in a relationship or not. While overall the proportion of participants at age 38 not currently in a heterosexual relationship was similar for men (15.4%) and women (13.7%), their education differed markedly.

Only 11% of the unpartnered men had a university degree, but this was true for 43% of the unpartnered women. The percentages of unpartnered university-educated women and unpartnered secondary school-only-educated men were in fact broadly the same: 19.3% for women and 20.5% for men. The number of university- educated men who were still unpartnered was a mere 7.6%.

This is why Paul Callister and Zoë Lawton proposed in their 2011 working paper (“The New Zealand Man Drought”) that educated women who wish to form a heterosexual partnership might need to consider ‘partnering down’ in terms of educational level. In fact, a substantial number of women are already doing exactly that: according to the 2013 Census, 51% of partnered women aged 25–34 who had a Bachelor’s degree had a partner of a lower qualification level than their own. (Given that only 65% of women with a university education could possibly have had a partner with a similar qualification level, this is perhaps unsurprising.)

However, in examining these statistics in 2014, Callister and Robert Didham (“The New Zealand ‘Meet Market’”) also observed that:

“[P]artnering rates of women with a degree with males also having a degree [are] higher than random sorting would suggest. At the other end of the educational spectrum, women are less likely to partner with men with low or no formal qualifications than random sorting would suggest. Of particular interest, while a significant proportion of women partner with men with Level 4 qualifications [often trade qualifications], it is lower than random sorting would suggest.”

What the statistics say is that the level of education affects compatibility.

What women think
Some women I spoke to agreed with this as a proposition. Antonia, who was educated to Master’s level, said that it would ‘probably’ be important to her that a potential partner also have a university education:

“Most likely, it would be ideal. I really enjoy talking about things I’ve studied or looking at things through certain lenses such that I think it would be difficult to be with somebody who didn’t have that way of looking at the world and the way that I like to talk about things, and talking’s so much a part of a relationship that it would be difficult to have someone who couldn’t talk about those things. That’s not saying that education would be the only way for that person to have that, but I think it’s highly likely that I would like to be with someone who’s had tertiary education.”

Robert Karen, similarly, had found ‘that you can have more in-depth conversations with people that have had tertiary education because you have to engage in arguments to a higher level.’ She reflected: ‘I quite enjoy that. I guess you’re forced to think about your perspective and where you stand on things when you have to argue.’

Other women, however, were less certain that their ideal partner should be similarly educated. Catherine observed that:

“For me to be kept interested in someone I have to be curious, and so they kind of have to know more about shit than I do a lot of the time – or things that are different. Or [be] really passionate about something in some way.”

But, as she reflected: ‘I don’t feel it’s necessary to have had a formal tertiary education to be engaged and to have interests in things and to be self-taught in other ways.’

When asked whether educational background mattered to her in a partner, Janine’s response echoed Catherine’s: ‘No. Not as in having the pieces of paper. I’ve met guys who are really really smart who’ve never been to uni. But an inquisitive mind and intelligence is really important to me – someone who’s curious about the world.’ Emma, when questioned about the type of man she had thought she might end up with, answered: ‘In terms of the guy – I don’t really have a type. I guess I just want someone who’s honest and who can communicate.’ Asked whether she saw the ability to communicate as being tied to education level, she replied: ‘Not necessarily, no. Just someone who can actually talk, and express themselves.’

Economic barriers
When Callister and Lawton considered the factors that might deter educated women from forming relationships with men less educated than they are, the barriers they cited were all economic. Women may shun partnerships with less educated men because ‘[i]n a couple in which the female partner is logically the breadwinner through her higher education and wishes to leave paid employment to give birth and raise the children, the couple’s overall income may decline significantly.’

Alternatively, ‘women may not want to marry down educationally . . . because they want a breadwinner husband to provide a high joint income.’ One of the questions I asked of my interviewees was whether a potential partner’s income level mattered to them. This was Meredith’s response:

“No, it’s not hugely important. I wouldn’t make judgements against somebody – if I met somebody, and then I found out what they did or how much they earned – if I like them, that wouldn’t factor into it. I’m not motivated by things like that.”

What mattered to these educated women was not that a man they might become involved with share their level of education, nor that he be rich. What mattered, as they expressed time and again, was that he could, in Emma’s words, ‘actually talk.’ Megan, reflecting on ‘the attributes that I seek in someone,’ admitted that ‘they have to be relatively intelligent.’ When pressed on the nature of this intelligence, she said:

“It’s about intellectual engagement, and being able to get how I think. Conversation is a really important part of bonding for me – I want to be able to go home and talk about things that are on my mind, and find solutions potentially, with somebody else.”

Laura, too, had no requirement regarding formal qualification level provided ‘we can still converse and they can still challenge me.’ Jennifer knew that any man she might be with in the future needed to have the ‘ability to talk.’

“The last person I was dating it ended because he was really lovely, he was smart, he was interesting, but he just could not actually talk about his feelings – like, at all. Like, would just freeze. We ended up having all our important discussions on Facebook chat… We’re not 14. You can’t convey tone over Facebook chat.”

Janine simply said: ‘He has to be expressive, and I think that’s difficult with New Zealand men.’

Copyright © Hannah August. No Country for Old Maids? Talking about the ‘man drought’ is published by BWB Texts (Bridget Williams Books, Wellington). Reprinted by permission