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Hunting for Cougars? Try Downmarket

There are cougars—older women seeking younger swains—out there, research confirms, but don't expect them to start paying your bills once landed.


So-called cougars don’t really exist, according to economists at the University of Colorado. Maybe that’s why the ABC television show Cougar Town switched gears so dramatically in its second season

The image of the sexy older woman chasing younger men has become as ubiquitous as hair dye, tummy tucks, and Botox in recent years—even Merriam-Webster has added the phenomenon to its definitions of cougar. When Cougar Town premiered in 2009, actor Courtney Cox played fortysomething Jules Cobb, newly divorced and on the prowl. The idea seemed to fit the times: Women have more tools than ever to look youthful well into middle age and, unlike earlier generations, the economic freedom to make their own way. Surely these powerful women can now do what powerful men have always done: pursue younger, attractive mates.

Women with higher education and professional levels are 45 percent more likely than the average woman to be in a “toyboy” relationship.

Actually, no. Or rather, maybe.

In an April paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics, University of Colorado economists Hani Mansour and Terra McKinnish analyzed census, health, and cognitive data on thousands of married couples to test common stereotypes about cougars and their more traditional counterparts, sugar daddies (older, wealthy men who marry young, attractive women). They found that couples in which one partner is significantly older than the other scored lower on measures of attractiveness, income, education, and intelligence, than couples in which both partners were similar in age. It doesn’t much matter which partner is older and which is younger. No one seems to be marrying for looks or money.

Instead, according to Mansour and McKinnish, it comes down to who you know.

Think about your college years: If you earned a four-year (or more) degree, you were probably surrounded by people your age who graduated in their early to mid-twenties. Then (unless you’re a millennial), you and your friends entered professional jobs with lots of opportunity for advancement, where you worked with other young, upwardly mobile people and climbed the ladder together. In contrast, people with lower levels of education, who enter lower-paying jobs with few opportunities for advancement, meet people of all ages as soon as they hit the job market. Mansour and McKinnish think that these social networks—“marriage markets” in economic-speak—are what really drive who we marry.

But economist Melvyn Coles isn’t convinced. He and University of Essex colleague Marco Francesconi wrote in a 2011 paper that the cougar phenomenon, while still rare, has been growing since 1970 and is more likely to occur when the woman has higher levels of education and professional success. Looking at data from the United Kingdom and the United States, they reported that unions in which the woman is five or more years older than the man increased from about about three percent in 1970 to more than eight percent in 2000. Digging deeper into this subset, and including women who had divorced as well as those in their first marriage, they found that women with higher education and professional levels are 45 percent more likely than the average woman to be in what they call a “toyboy” relationship.

What’s not in dispute is that in general, a greater proportion of people today are marrying someone closer to their own age than in the past. At the turn of the 20th century–when women had few options for economic security beyond a successful husband—a whopping 45 percent married men five to seven years older. In Mad Men days, the figure had fallen to 17 percent. By the year 2000, it was 13 percent. And Coles and Francesconi agree that age differences for first partnerships are smaller among educated people than among less educated people.

These trends aside, a recent survey of 2,000 people by the U.K. insurance-price-comparison company suggests that many men and women still think the man in a relationship should be older than the woman—by four years and four months, to be precise. Only one in a hundred women favored a much younger man. And a third said they would be comfortable with a man up to seven years older. Tellingly, despite gains in the workplace, 55 percent of the women also said they had trouble paying their rent or mortgage.

But hoping for a sugar daddy or a cougar to pay the bills may be just an elusive fantasy. “You might have a preference for something,” Mansour says, “but that doesn’t mean you get your preference. Your environment and who you interact with are really going to impact your outcome and who you end up with.”