The economic trade-off: Career or family?

Research by Wharton’s Corinne Low examines the economic compromises women face in balancing career and family timing, and the need for more gender-equitable policies.

For every year a woman ages, she must earn $7,000 more annually to remain equally attractive to potential romantic partners, according to new research from Corinne Low of the Wharton School that calculates the economic trade-off for women between career and family investments.

A parent working at a laptop with a small baby in their lap.

In two forthcoming papers, Low, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy, takes a revealing look at “reproductive capital,” a term she uses to describe the economic value of fertility, and thus the trade-offs that women make when they make time-consuming educational and career investments.

In her first paper, Pricing the Biological Clock: The Marriage Market Costs of Aging to Women,” forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics, Low designed a unique online dating experiment to determine how both men and women fare in the marriage market as they get older and fertility declines.

“You always hear people talking about the biological clock and how influential it is in women’s lives. But what’s been missing from the literature is this idea that if men also want to have kids, then it isn’t just a personal trade-off for women, it’s an economic trade-off,” she says. “Who you marry is one of the most significant financial decisions you can make. It’s a big deal for your financial well-being whether you marry someone who is going to make $50,000 a year or $500,000 a year.”

The experiment recruited real online daters who were asked to rate hypothetical profiles in which the photo was the same, but the age and income varied. The participants were incentivized to be honest in their answers; as compensation, they received customized advice from a dating coach on how to attract the type of partner they rated highest.

The results found that both male and female participants valued a high income in a potential romantic partner, but there was a sharp contrast when it came to age preferences. Men were rated higher as they aged, while women were rated lower as they aged. However, the preference for younger women was only found among male daters who had no children and who were knowledgeable about when female fertility declines. Based on their ratings, for every year past 30, women had to make $7,000 a year more to stay in the romantic running for them.

“These findings indicate that men also hear the ticking of the biological clock. Seeking to marry and have children, they naturally prefer more fertile partners,” Low writes.

Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.