A Dating Paradigm Shift For Women in Their 30s

Are women in their 30s looking to slightly younger guys, in lieu of older men, for relationships?

Originally published on Jezebel.com.

“This is so weird,” my friend Nicole—a successful 33-year-old entertainment executive—tells me. “Ever since I started dating, I went for older guys, sometimes much older. But now I’m head over heels for a 29-year-old. It’s crazy, but right now, it just makes sense.”

While the “cougar” (the older woman who pursues significantly younger men) is at least partly an overhyped media creation, there’s some evidence that for one age group in particular, this is a real emerging trend. More than a few women in their late 20s to mid 30s who generally dated older men are now switching to going out with younger guys. While the stereotypical cougar is a woman in her 40s with a boyfriend little more than half her age, these women are still in their 30s going out with guys just a few short years younger than themselves. And this doesn’t necessarily adhere to the idea of “cheetahs” (the “younger sister” of the cougar, as helpfully invented by the Observer). What I’m talking about here is a bit more specific.

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I recently interviewed 49 women, solicited via Facebook, ranging in age from 26 to 40, with a median age of 31. Some women I interviewed in person, some over email. All had a history of dating older guys; all were either currently dating men younger than themselves or were keenly interested in doing so. For most of them, this was a fairly new shift in their lives, one that had taken many by surprise.

Megan, a 35 year-old yoga instructor, wrote “You know how they always say that the good ones are taken or gay? I never believed that, until I started dating guys on the cusp of 40.” She explained that she’s generally dated men 3-5 years older than herself. (Megan was adamant that she never had “a daddy thing” for substantially older dudes.) “It seems something starts to happen to men who are still single as they hit 40. It’s not that they slow down so much as they seem paralyzed by uncertainty about their lives.”

Many of the 20 and 30-something women I talked to noted that it was guys their own age or even younger who seemed more mature and emotionally stable. While the pool of straight, single males age 38-45 is smaller than that of dudes who are a decade younger, it isn’t just scarcity that seems to be turning some women away from dating older men. It’s a combination of social and sexual factors.

My grandfather often remarked that “30 is the age when a young man stops being promising.” Since American society now turns middle-class male adolescence into a quarter-century project, grandpa’s axiom needs an update. Today, we give men an extra decade to “launch” themselves professionally. But in this prolonged recession, more men than ever are hitting mid-life single—and with the keen awareness that they’ve fallen short both of their own dreams and of other’s expectations.

As many of the women in my informal study reported, many men on the cusp of 40 become preoccupied with their own aging. Dating a younger woman is charged with meaning for them; it’s one obvious way of continuing to feel youthful. But these older fellas are also more likely than younger men to be nonplussed by their girlfriends’ success, which they compare grimly to their own real or perceived shortcomings.

Nicole points out that when she first started dating older men, she was a poor college student. But as she grew into her own career, she soon found that those same older men no longer were necessarily more successful than she was. “Most men who are into younger women like being able to dazzle and wow them”, she says. “But now that I’m in my 30s, I’ve seen the show. Men a few years older than me can’t impress me with their money or their experience, because I’ve got as much of both as they do. And that seems to throw a lot of them off.”

As Megan, Nicole, and others remarked, men in their 20s and early 30s seem both less stressed and less intimidated by women’s success than their slightly older counterparts. These younger guys are not only less likely to feel that they’re running out of time, they’re not nearly as troubled by women who are often better educated and better paid than they are. My friend Ariadne, who works in marketing and studies demographics, notes that men from the Millenial generation (those born in 1981 and after) are much more likely to be comfortable with equality than the older Gen Xers (guys born in the 1960s and early ‘70s). “Older guys may talk the language of equality, but younger men live it out better,” Ariadne claims. Many other women I heard from seem to agree.

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But there’s more to the appeal of younger guys than greater egalitarianism alone. Many of the women I interviewed noted that at this point in their lives, they found slightly younger dudes to be far more sexually attractive. As my interviewees made clear, the enduring myths that women aren’t particularly visual—and that most women find grey hair and wrinkles to be turn-ons—are just that, myths. While there are a few younger women who really are strongly attracted to older guys, the sexiness of the aging male body is more than a little oversold in popular culture. Not a lot of 30-year-olds are as hot as Ryan Gosling—but far fewer 40-something men look anything like Brad Pitt.

Sexier. Less likely to be controlling. More secure and self-confident. More comfortable with powerful women. Better listeners. These were the main reasons the women I heard from shared as to why they’ve “made the switch” to dating younger men. Many women I spoke to were just a little bit uncomfortable going public with their relationships, even as they were frank about their newfound preference for younger guys. “I just don’t like the sound of the phrase ‘older woman,'” Megan said; “it makes me sound like a middle-aged Mrs. Robinson.” But whatever small degree of uncertainty remains about what to call these 30-something women who date slightly younger guys, the phenomenon is real and growing.

The older man/younger woman dynamic remains our culture’s most common model for age-disparate relationships. But evidence and anecdote seem to suggest that for women in their 30s, there’s a new template emerging. Whatever you do, however, please don’t call them cheetahs or cougars.

Photo /Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Im not reading this Hugo, you are over using the word “slightly” I think, to assert your belief that its different women do it. Bit like the difference between male and female sex tourists, the first group are evil the second are poor dears seeking romance.

  2. I’ll say this….one of the main reasons I deleted my OKCupid profile (besides having more luck offline) was that I was HORRIFIED at the emotional states of many of the men I was meeting. Many of them – if not all – were fresh out of a relationship or marriage and completely emotionally shattered. And these were men 39-44 or so. I’m talking completely emotionally and spiritually broken. It was too hard and too frustrating.

    As Megan, Nicole, and others remarked, men in their 20s and early 30s seem both less stressed and less intimidated by women’s success than their slightly older counterparts.

    I tend to think this is a rationalization. I think younger men date older women for the sex. Finito. The younger guys will tolerate whatever to get sex from an “older” woman. Few have any intention of developing something long lasting or substantive. Most men are not intimidated by a successful or strong or sexually assertive woman. We’re seeing more of the men that are because of the whole paradigm shift going on due to the economy. Men being out of work does a number on their ego. They need to feel they are providing somehow, and when they can’t then they feel inadequate.

    • I don’t think’s its just about the sex. In fact, the guys who have approached me in the last couple years, with a relationship in mind… have all been younger than me. The guys who were older than me, all about being bachelors forever.

      • I agree with you anon. The focus on relationships is just as strong with younger men than with older men (we are talking within 8 years difference), I think the “just looking for sex” myth of younger man-older woman relationships applies much more when the age difference is greater than eight years.

    • “I think younger men date older women for the sex. Finito.”

      Exactly. Hugo should ask his self selected sample of friends how many of their relationships with younger men have lasted more than 3 months.

      • I don’t date men in my age group (30s to early 40s). My demographics tend to cover men from age 20-28 and then from 45-60. Why? I have zero desire to go back to family and babyland. I want men who I can have fun with. Men in those two age ranges are interested in doing that with me. They’re also not all wrapped up in their careers which means more time for play as well.
        Do I think my relationships with the younger men will last forever? Hell no! But I don’t think the odds are good for any relationship lasting much beyond 5 years anyways. I am not looking for a life partner.
        Although the younger men have always appreciated my sexuality, they have also always taken the relationship far more seriously than I have. So I don’t think it has always just been about sex.

    • anonymous says:

      #Jeni —Agreed, the emotional state of these divorced and clearly traumatized 37-45 year old men is a definite downer on my dating life. Just met an interesting 30 year old who is actually, to my surprise, rather mature and ready for a serious relationship. That’s my reason for doing some homework on how viable this could be for me. Just call me Bobcat!

      #Hugo—Great article! Thanks!

  3. Black Iris says:

    What strikes me about this is how small an age difference is considered dating a younger man. Many women date a guy four or five years older than them without thinking about it. Dating a guy your age or five years younger than you shouldn’t be seen as such a big deal.

  4. Let’s not forget also, a man in his 20’s is ready for “action” a lot faster and a lot more often than the average 40 something year old man. While this may not matter so much in a “one night stand”, I’m sure it matters a great deal in a relationship.

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      Well, golly, you couldn’t tell this by some of us older guys. See carreza, anyway. I was talking to a [younger] guy who said he hated it when the woman wanted sex more than he, and I said, “huh?”. As usual, this is a stereotype, and it also looks like Hugo is running out of article ideas. Can we agree not to have any more articles on age differences in sex, what “promiscuity” is, etc.?

      • A least he isn’t writing about porn every day. The front page of this blog is dominated recently by articles about porn.

  5. Interesting article. My current girlfriend is 29. I’m 24. She is more educated and makes more money than me. She has also travelled the world and has lived in different countries. I haven’t been outside of North America. She can also speak more languages than me too. And I’m perfectly fine with all of this.

  6. This is ridiculous. The woman has to be very attractive to pull this off. A 29-year-old man might date a mid-30s woman, but he is not going to settle down and marry her unless she is much more attractive than the women he is used to dating or he is desperate.

  7. 32, Female says:

    Yes it is about the sex – for me at least. I’m not in a position in my life where I can stop and date a man for an extended period of time unless I know he has all of the makings of the one I want to marry. Ultimately, I’d like to marry someone in my age range. But right now I’m still focused on my career. if I wasted time in a relationship that’s not going anywhere, I would miss out on “the one”, and it would also divert my attention from building my career. But I still want to be intimate with someone. I still want to have sex. A younger man is perfect, because sexually, our age range is a perfect match. We’re BOTH in our sexual peak. Our sex drive is equivalent. Younger men tend to be a little more “all over the place”, and that is acceptable to me, because I’m not looking to tie anyone down. And….. luckily, I look like I’m 24.

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