Too many girls for too few boys
The morning’s Email brings word that a friend’s book Dating Secrets is about to hit better bookstores everywhere. Knowing my friend, the pseudonymous Leah Jacobs, I have not the slightest doubt that her advice will smooth the shidduchim process for many singles, and help them close on those shidduchim that should go through and weed out those that should not.
But one thing this book will not do as advertised is provide an answer to the “Singles Crisis.” The roots of that crisis lie not in the realm of individual psychology – for which a book of advice can help – but in hard, cold statistics about the demography of the Orthodox community.
To put the Singles Crisis as baldly as possible: There are too many girls for too few boys. That is true for two reasons: (1) the Orthodox community is growing rapidly; (2) there tends to be a large age gap between most religious couples, with the husbands several years older than their wives. (The exception to the latter rule is the Chassidic world in which it is not uncommon for husbands to be the same age or even younger than their wives, and in which one does not hear of a Singles Crisis.)
To understand why these two facts guarantee a “Singles Crisis” let us consider the following hypothetical. Assume that 1,000 boys and 1,000 girls are born in 1985. If the community grows by 4% per annum, the comparable cohort for those born four years later will be 1160 boys and 1160 girls. If boys marry, on average, girls four years younger than themselves (the actual figure for the yeshiva community is 3.5 years and for the overall non-Chassidic Orthodox community 3 years) we are left with a situation in which every cohort of 1,000 boys finds itself paired with a cohort of 1,160 girls. That is a recipe for disaster.
The problem here is sociological, not biological. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, has arranged matters so that slightly more boys are born than girls. On average, 104 boys reach the age of 20 for every 100 girls. Indeed that 4% differential offers some hope of solving the Singles Crisis with relatively small adjustments in our current patterns of dating and marriage.
Identifying the gap between the average age that young men and young women enter the shidduchim process as the source of the problem points us in the direction of a solution. Either young men will have to start dating earlier (even a one year reduction of the average marriage age over time would have an immense impact) or women will have to start dating later, or some combination of both.
But changing societal norms that have evolved in response to particular realities is never easy. At present, the norm in America is for young men in the yeshiva community to learn two or three years in beis medrash after high school, and then to go to Eretz Yisrael for another one or two years of learning before entering the marriage market. Young women usually spend a year in seminary after high school, and then begin to date. Thus the age of entry into the shidduch market is three to four years older for men than women.
In Eretz Yisrael, yeshiva students tend to marry at a younger age than their American counterparts, but there are factors weighing against a further reduction in the marriage age. Consider the situation of a yeshiva bochur in Eretz Yisrael. As long as he is in yeshiva, he can learn as late at night as he wants. He is surrounded by friends, and those with whom he can talk in learning. As he advances in his learning, he has many younger students eager to listen to his chaburos and to ask him questions. While in yeshiva, he has few worries.
As soon as he gets married, he must worry about landing one of the ever harder to find kollel spots, and he cannot afford to be too choosy about whether the kollel suits his needs. He also has to worry about whether his wife will find a job. The transition from carefree yeshiva bochur to harried avreich is swift. Those who genuinely love learning will not be eager to make the leap any sooner than necessary. Such financial pressures in the first years after marriage are less prevalent in America, and allow more room for a further reduction in the marriage age for yeshiva bochurim.
Girls are more mature and accrue more varied life experiences at an earlier age. That too militates against a dramatic decrease in the age at which boys marry. On the other hand, there are clear advantages to girls marrying later. For one thing, they can acquire training that allows them to earn a good parnassah in the role of (partial) breadwinner that they have now been assigned. If they marry right out of seminary and are blessed with children immediately, they will likely never have the opportunity to acquire such training, and find themselves permanently consigned to low-paying, menial jobs. The problem, of course, is that girls panicked about getting married will never agree to delay the start of shidduchim unless that becomes the societal norm.
Failure to close the gap in marriage age, as Rabbi Chaim Tropper demonstrated, in a chilling demographic presentation at the convention of Agudath Israel of America last year, will result in hundreds of young women per year going unmarried, and the number of unmarried women between 25 and 45 reaching the many thousands within the next few decades in the United States alone.
Each of these women will have been raised to look forward to being a wife and mother as her most important task in life. The long-range consequences for our families and our society from such a large group of unmarried women are too painful to contemplate.
A letter signed by six leading American roshei yeshiva last summer describing those bochurim who feel inclined to marry at a younger age as acting in full accord with the Torah (see Kiddushin 29b), was an important first step to addressing the problem. And renowned lecturer Paysach Krohn’s speech for the Chofetz Chaim Foundation’s Tisha B’Av video urging young men to consider marrying women close to their own age was a second. (Given that women live, on average, more than seven years longer than men, the latter suggestion certainly makes actuarial sense.) The magnitude of the tragedy facing our daughters mandates many more such initiatives.
Originally published in Mishpacha magazine.