The man drought - is it real?

The man drought - is it real?

Demographic commentator Bernard Salt is credited with coining the phrase “Man drought”, to refer to the phenomenon of there being more females than males in particular age groups. The main age he refers to as a man drought is among people in their 30s and 40s, and he makes a lot of assumptions about the singles market in those age groups. I recently attended a presentation by Mr Salt, and he was using charts from the 2006 Census to discuss the man drought, among other issues. I wondered if this had changed since 2006.


The calculations involved in this are extremely simple. The chart below shows the number of males per 100 females in each single year of age in Australia, for 2006 and 2011.


Firstly the thing to notice is that for most age groups up to the age of 70, the number of males and females is pretty similar. The lowest it gets is 95 males per 100 females and the highest around 105. So we’re only talking about 5% variation in any given age group.

The exception is of course the elderly. After the age of 75, the number of males plummets, due to the significantly lower life expectancy of men compared to women. This is the real story here, and once you get to ages in the 90s, there is a very real “man drought” – there are 3 women for every man (a rate of 33 on the chart, off the bottom of the chart, which I enlarged to see the detail among the younger ages).


But in the younger groups, there are some differences. The natural birth rate always provides more boys than girls. An excess of male babies of about 5% is found in all human populations, which has evolved over the last million years or so, to account for the greater death rate of men in conflict and risk-taking behaviour.

Bernard is right, however, that after the age of 25, there are slightly more women than men. This is probably because of males heading overseas at a greater rate than females. In the 2011 Census, however, the gap has closed significantly for the 30-somethings, and that’s because of our high migration rate among people in their late 20s and 30s – more men come here on working visas as well.

The other interesting change is in the so called “Man Mountain” in the late 50s/early 60s. It was more of a molehill in 2006 anyway (peaking at 102 men for every 100 women), but now it’s completely gone, and women outnumber men in every age group from 26 to 100+. The corresponding molehill has shifted 5 years to the right, but still doesn’t quite hit 100% on the chart. I suspect the cause of this bump may have been the increasing infant survival rate among those babies born in the late 1940s after WWII, early baby boom, but if anyone can shed some more light on this please do!

So, although there are more women than men in most age groups over 25, the difference is pretty small at every age up to 70. Any “man drought” which exists in Australia is pretty minor and I doubt it affects the singles market very much in any age group. We’re talking about AT MOST a difference of 5% more women than men in any single year age group, and mostly it’s much less than that. Such a difference would be absorbed by the fact that people don’t necessarily seek partners of the same age, some people seek same-sex partners, and some are not interested in the dating game!


The other thing to remember is that this is about people counted in the Census, and young males are notoriously difficult to count in the Census, they have the highest undercount of any group.

Recently, in this article, Bernard Salt does use the latest 2011 Census data but takes a different tack, talking about an excess of men over women or vice versa in various age groups among the single population.

I had to work out what he meant by single, but once I did, the numbers check out. There are indeed about 5,000 more women than men aged 45 with the “Social marital status” of “Not married” in the Census (and similar differences in ages just above and below that). The catch is the use of the variable “Social marital status”. You may notice that .id doesn’t use this Census variable on our sites, and there is a good reason for this.

Social marital status is designed to give a count of registered and de-facto marriages, but it’s deficient in that it only works for people who are counted in the household on Census night. While the household type (which we do make great use of in is coded using information about people temporarily absent, social marital status is set to “not applicable” for anyone who is not at their usual address on Census night.

And there lies the real problem. Men in their 30s and 40s are more likely to be traveling for work, and at the age of 45 (exactly), there were approximately 8,000 men counted away from home (but still within Australia – this isn’t even counting at all those who were temporarily overseas, where men are also likely to outnumber women), to only about 4,000 women. While some of these would have been counted as married if they had been at home, many would be not married, but not recorded as such because they are away from home.

For exactly the same reason, using this variable you also find a much higher number of women who are “Married in a registered marriage” than the number of men in that category (an impossibility in Australia without same-sex marriage) – because more men are counted away from home.

This is not to say that there isn’t an excess of genuinely not married women in that age group due to this gender imbalance in the numbers counted away from home, it is probably much less than it seems.

Just another pitfall to using Census data!

So is there a man drought? Yes and no. There are certainly more women than men in some age groups, but not by a lot, and it’s hard to see their marital status through some of the issues with the data. And the only significant man drought is in the over 70s where the lower life expectancy of men means that there are far, far more women.

Access the new sites and other population statistics for Australia, States, Capital Cities, Local Government Areas and suburbs at .id’s demographic resource centre.

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Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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