More women are going into higher education than ever before and that rise is set to continue. This is a success story for India, yet our research, published in the journal, Demography, highlights that the custom of men marrying women who are less educated than they are remains widespread. This is not unique to India. In many parts of the world, although marriage occurs most often between similarly educated men and women, when brides and grooms are differently educated, men tend to be more educated than their wives. Population projections by age and educational attainment suggest that by 2050 a high proportion of Indian women will be as educated, if not more so, than men. So isn't it time that men (and their families) started to celebrate this fact, viewing a good education as yet another attribute in a bride?
Researchers from the University of Oxford worked with the Center for Demographic Studies, Barcelona, and the Minnesota Population Center, USA, to harmonise existing data on current marriage patterns by age and education. We then applied these to population projections on the likely age, sex and educational attainment of the population in India by 2050 to develop scenarios for future marriage patterns.
Marriage is an almost universal institution for men and women in India today. Yet our model shows that if current pairing norms were to continue and the "right" type of bride needed to be less educated than her groom, by 2050 women could find it more difficult to find an eligible partner, particularly if they have been educated at university or college level. Our study suggests that the proportion of never-married women aged 45-49 would rise from 0.07% in 2010 to nearly 9% by 2050, with the most significant increase among university-educated women. We also found that if current public attitudes don't change, a larger proportion of the least-educated men would also never marry.
We analysed data from the National Family Health Survey for India (2005-06) and the India Socio-Economic Survey (1999, 2004) to look at current marriage patterns. We found that less than one per cent (0.6%) of all women remained unmarried by the age of 50. More than half (54.4%) of the university-educated grooms married women who had ended their education at the primary or secondary level. Just over one quarter (26.6%) of women who had completed university "married down", choosing less educated husbands, while most female graduates (73.4%) married men of a similar educational background.
To account for how the educational structure of the population would change with many more women in higher education in India, we used data on population projections by age and education (from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Vienna Institute of Demography). These projections indicate that by 2050 there could be around 92 men for every 100 women aged 25-29 with a university education. That compares with 151 men for every 100 women from the same age group in higher education in 2010.
Previous research into projected marriage patterns has solely focused on the age-sex structure of the future population in India, concluding that by 2050 men could have problems finding suitable brides due to the skewed sex ratios at birth in India's population. However, for the first time, we have factored in the changing educational picture for the Indian population, and our model shows that the pool of suitable marriage partners for women is shrinking. Of course we hope that this scenario does not happen and is just an interesting exercise on paper. However, it sheds new light on the gap between female aspiration and social attitudes about the "right" sort of women to marry.
Traditional roles and expectations for women and men in India still persist despite the significant social and demographic changes witnessed in recent years. Our research shows that the rigid social structure still prevalent in India has to change. Indian women are seeking to be better educated, and the number completing education is expected to continue to grow. When will Indian society catch up with them and revise old-fashioned ideas about the ideal Indian bride?