These days, Liu Yan, a popular Chinese actress and TV presenter, is almost as well known for being single as she is for her work. In a 2021 talk show appearance, the 41-year-old was asked how an “excellent” woman such as her could not find a partner. “Traditional men won’t consider women my age, they prefer young women they can influence,” she replied.
Our data backs her up. Together with two other scholars, Yue Qian and Manlin Cai, I analyzed almost 6,000 dating profiles belonging to Shanghai residents and conducted 29 interviews with heterosexual online daters in the city between the ages of 25 and 39.
We found that men on online dating services prefer young women in both relative — younger than themselves — and absolute — below a certain age — terms. In interviews, it was clear that the preference for young women was linked to the perception that younger women are cuter and more innocent. “I prefer younger women,” said 34-year-old Jiancheng. “They’re cuter. The older a woman is, the more unpleasant experiences she may have had.” (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)
Other interviewees said they were unwilling to date women past a certain age because of their — or in some cases, their parents’ — concerns about declining reproductive capacity. “My parents are doctors; they think women over 35 have higher risks in pregnancy,” said 31-year-old Liang Xue. His parents hope their daughter-in-law will be no older than their son.
Discrimination faced by China’s “leftover women,” typically defined as successful professionals in their late twenties or older, is widespread. But our study found that single men past a certain age face stigmas in the dating market, too. “A man born before 1987 who meets my (financial) requirements but is still single must have some problems,” said 28-year-old Yu Jing.
“The good men were snapped up earlier, and the leftover men and women perhaps have problems,” said 28-year-old Qing Niao, her language echoing Yu’s. The stereotype that a normal person gets married by a certain age applies to both women and men, and breaking these norms lowers both genders’ marriageability.
Like women, men were judged in both relative and absolute terms. Women expressed a preference for older men, but not “too old.” “I imagine that a man should be older than his partner,” said 34-year-old Ma Lili. “But it’s not appropriate if the age gap is too large, because I can sense the generational gap when chatting with him. He will correct you regarding how you behave and what you say as if he’s always right. It’s really bad.”
Ma’s preferences fit with Chinese social norms, in which women are expected to marry older, more established men. But her response also suggests that she values good communication in her relationships. She was uncomfortable with “mansplaining,” something that she thought was more likely to occur when dating a man much older than herself.
Overall, women over 30 are more likely than those under 30 to accept a partner younger than themselves. The interview data further suggests that, as women age, they relax their preference for only dating older men. “When I was 25, I couldn’t accept a partner two years younger than me, because a guy at 23 would just be a fresh graduate or doing a master’s degree,” said 27-year-old Mei He. “Relatively speaking, he wouldn’t be mature or a member of society yet. But since I’m 27 now, a man of 25 would have work experience. Two years younger is acceptable.”
Mei He’s emphasis on work experience implies the importance of men’s transition to the professional world in shaping their desirability as potential partners, especially in a society where men are still expected to be the main providers for their families.
Our female interviewees did not attribute their age preferences to considerations like reducing the risks and costs associated with childbearing and childrearing. They also did not link men’s work status and earning capabilities to their capabilities as fathers. Women who own their own homes or possess a higher education degree are less likely to prefer older men. This finding suggests that economic independence may allow them to push back against the expectation that women be obedient in intimate relationships, as in Ma Lili’s unwillingness to put up with mansplaining.
Overall, our results reveal strong gender asymmetry in age preferences for partners: Women’s preference for age hypergamy — in which women marry older men — is relatively weak and does not change much with age, whereas men strongly prefer age hypergamy and become more interested in dating further down in age as they grow older.
The new three-child policy implemented in 2021 may intensify men’s preferences for younger women. Because men who want to have more children are now allowed to do so, they may be more motivated to seek younger partners.
It takes two to make a match, however, and gender asymmetry in age preferences could contribute to further increases in the average age of marriage or even a decline in marriage rates. Both women and men may find it increasingly difficult to find a suitable partner as they age.
Over 10 million Chinese use online dating services, according to the research firm Statista. Often, these services are portrayed as transformative and liberating technologies. They seem to promise users more choices, more chances, and more autonomy in picking a partner than traditional dating or matchmaking. But old stigmas do not disappear online. In the absence of a social commitment to gender egalitarianism, the near-unlimited opportunities presented by new technologies like dating apps may reinforce the existing gender and age-based hierarchies of China’s marriage market.
Yue Qian and Manlin Cai contributed to this article.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Annika McFarlane/iStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)