"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.
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 ageing. 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.
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 ageing 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 whom 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.
Image via aispi/Shutterstock.com.