Cougar hunt backfires

Intrigued by headlines claiming cougars were on the prowl from Hollywood to New York, two University of Colorado Denver researchers recently went on the hunt, calculators loaded, to reveal if this stated phenomenon — that rich, older women were increasingly bagging young, sexy men — was fact or fiction. As it turned out, the numbers didn’t back the hoopla, at least not when it came to holy matrimony.

Despite heightened attention to age-gapped couples such as baby boomer Demi Moore and Generation-Xer Ashton Kutcher and scores of media accounts highlighting the “trend,” when the two economists scoured the numbers to find some truth to the “cougar craze,” they busted the myth instead, along with the popular belief that “sugar daddies” are a large part of the social fabric.

‘Surprising’ findings

“We went all the way to 1960 to see if there was a change in women marrying younger men (cougars), and there was very, very little,” said Hani Mansour, assistant professor of economics on the CU Denver campus, who examined U.S. census data on first-time marriages. “So our main finding was that there was no phenomenon. Everything that people had been talking about was not showing up in the data. In addition, the population of older men marrying younger women (sugar daddies) was, if anything, decreasing.”

Moreover, when the researchers compared couples with large age gaps to couples close in age, their findings basically took the “sugar” out of “daddy.” “The older men just had much lower earnings,” said Terra McKinnish, Mansour’s research partner and associate professor of economics at CU Boulder. “It was a very large difference,” McKinnish said, noting that both researchers were surprised by their findings. In fact, couples with wider age gaps (eight years or greater) scored lower on nearly every characteristic the researchers assessed — even looks and brains.

“They have lower education, lower earnings,” Mansour said. “They work in occupations with lower wages. They scored lower on tests. They also got lower scores on appearance measures that were taken when they were in high school.” In addition to census data, Mansour and McKinnish used information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Their study was published in May in the Review of Economics and Statistics.

One contradictory finding the two revealed was that women married to older men averaged higher earnings than women married to similarly aged partners, but these women worked more hours (likely to compensate for their husbands’ lower earnings) rather than holding more lucrative jobs. “So it goes against the trophy-wife stereotype,” McKinnish said.

Changing beliefs

The findings not only fly in the face of conventional wisdom; they defy established economic marriage models. Most models suggest, in order to attract younger mates, older partners must possess bait, such as higher education and financial means, McKinnish said.

The bottom line: It appears the choices made early in life can dramatically affect quality of both jobs and mates, Mansour said. Lower-paying jobs (such as restaurant or retail) and lower education (such as community college vs. four-year institutions) tend to place people in situations where they network with a wider range of age groups, he said. And those groups become their marketplace for spouses. “It really changes our idea on how people meet,” Mansour said.

The study also revealed an increasing marriage trend that could signal a difference in what people are looking for in lifelong partners, Mansour said. “More people are marrying people of the same age.” Men used to out-age their partners by at least two to four years, but that gap is closing. And, again, that can be partially attributed to early-life networks, Mansour said. Students are networking with same-age classmates in college and then heading into upwardly mobile jobs with those classmates at an age when people tend to marry, he said.

But it also could mean a change in what people hope to gain from marriage, Mansour said, noting that men used to profit from securing a job and then finding a wife to specialize in household life. “But now men and women might be valuing the fact that they have similar goals and interests, whether it’s hiking together or wanting to time fertility at the same time,” he said.

Just the facts?

Although the findings shouldn’t ruffle any feathers — “It’s U.S. census data figures; it is what it is,” McKinnish said — some “cougar” and “sugar-daddy” dating sites are skeptical of the study, claiming popularity of their services continues to grow.

“As of last count, we were at more than 2 million members, and we anticipate that number will be even higher at next count,” said Angela Jacob Bermudo, public relations manager for SeekingArrangment.com, which caters to “sugar daddies.” When comparing 2012 with an earlier year (2008), the company found a 358 percent increase in signups, Bermudo said. CougarLife.com has also grown — to more than 5 million members since launching in the United States in 2009, said public-relations director Erin Burcham.

Of course, not all of these site-goers are finding wedded bliss, if they are even seeking it, which would exclude them from the study. Since its launch in 2006, 12,400 marriages have resulted from her company’s service, Bermudo said. And the majority of those sugar daddies had been married before — which would also take them out of McKinnish and Mansour’s eye.

“We aren’t saying they don’t exist,” Mansour said. “We are just saying they have lower quality than is commonly believed. Courtney Cox is an outlier,” he said of the actress of “Friends” fame who married a man seven years her junior.

For now, Mansour and McKinnish will continue studies looking more deeply into what they found to better understand the social economics of marriage, with their biggest interest in the movement toward marrying mates of the same age, Mansour said. “Because, with that, the whole idea of what makes a marriage stable changes.”

Intrigued by headlines claiming cougars were on the prowl from Hollywood to New York, two University of Colorado Denver researchers recently went on the hunt, calculators loaded, to reveal if this stated phenomenon — that rich, older women were increasingly bagging young, sexy men — was fact or fiction. As it turned out, the numbers didn’t back the hoopla, at least not when it came to holy matrimony.

Despite heightened attention to age-gapped couples such as baby boomer Demi Moore and Generation-Xer Ashton Kutcher and scores of media accounts highlighting the “trend,” when the two economists scoured the numbers to find some truth to the “cougar craze,” they busted the myth instead, along with the popular belief that “sugar daddies” are a large part of the social fabric.

‘Surprising’ findings

“We went all the way to 1960 to see if there was a change in women marrying younger men (cougars), and there was very, very little,” said Hani Mansour, assistant professor of economics on the CU Denver campus, who examined U.S. census data on first-time marriages. “So our main finding was that there was no phenomenon. Everything that people had been talking about was not showing up in the data. In addition, the population of older men marrying younger women (sugar daddies) was, if anything, decreasing.”

Moreover, when the researchers compared couples with large age gaps to couples close in age, their findings basically took the “sugar” out of “daddy.” “The older…