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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship depicted in the classic film "The Graduate" is rare in real life, the study says. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ StudioCanal)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship depicted in the classic film “The Graduate” is rare in real life, the study says. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ StudioCanal)

DENVER — Unfortunately for attractive young people looking for a wealthy, older romantic partner to take care of them, there are relatively few “cougars” and “sugar daddies” in real life, a new study from the University of Colorado Denver finds.

In fact, it seems that those married to significantly younger or older mates have on average lower earnings, lower cognitive abilities, are less educated and less attractive than couples of similar ages.

“Hugh Hefner is an outlier,” said Hani Mansour, Ph.D., an assistant professor of economics at CU Denver. “Our results call into question the conventional wisdom regarding differently-aged couples.”

The study, co-authored with Terra McKinnish, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, was published online last week in the Review of Economics and Statistics. It showed that those married to older or younger spouses scored negatively in key areas like education, occupational wages, appearance and cognitive skills.

The researchers did not give a range of how much older or younger a spouse had to be to see these effects. It simply found that the greater the age difference, the higher the negative indicators.

The economists examined U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960 through 2000 looking at age at first marriage, completed education, occupational wages, and earnings. They also used the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to measure cognitive skills and the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health to gauge physical attractiveness.

Their findings largely reflect the different networks that lower or higher ability individuals belong to, they believe.

Those attending four-year colleges interact more with people of about the same age. After graduation, they and their peers often enter careers with upward mobility at a time when people tend to marry.

In contrast, those who attend community colleges or work in low-skilled jobs with little chance of advancement are more likely to interact with more widely diverse age groups, increasing their chances of marrying someone significantly younger or older, the study said.

“It really depends on who your social network is,” Mansour said. “People with lower earning potential are in networks that are more age diverse.”

The study also found that men married to younger or older spouses actually made less money than those married to women of a similar age. At the same time, women married to differently-aged spouses made more money than their mates but that was due to working more hours, not earning higher wages.

Mansour said the study shed light on how and why people marry who they do. The researchers also found that despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, there is nothing new about older women searching for younger men to marry.

“We really didn’t find any evidence of a new cougar phenomenon,” he said. “Although their share has slightly increased over time, cougars have been among us since the 1960s.”

The real trend, he said, is that people of similar ages are increasingly marrying each other.

“The benefits from marriage might be changing. When you are close in age you can do things together,” he said. “You can have children when both parties want to, retire at the same time and grow old together.”