Jon Birger is a journalist, speaker, Fortune contributor, and author of DATE-ONOMICS—exploring how lopsided sex ratios affect marriage, hookup culture and economy.
Laura Perrins: So go on, give us the premise of your book.
Jon Birger: DATE-ONOMICS aims to answer a familiar question: Why are there so many women with everything going for them who can’t seem to meet decent men (even as mildly-appealing guys never seem to stay single for more than five minutes)? The popular dating guides put all the blame on the woman. She returned his text message an hour too soon or an hour too late or didn’t follow some other silly “rule.” My argument is that this is not a strategic problem but a demographic one.
In the US, the UK and most other Western countries, there are one third more women than men graduating from college. Young men and women are graduating into a dating market with 4 women for every 3 men. This imbalance doesn’t just make it statistically challenging to find a man, but it affects behaviour too. Sociologists and psychologists have done a lot of research on the effects of lopsided sex ratios, and the consensus is that when men are in undersupply, the dating culture becomes less monogamous and more promiscuous. Women are more likely to be treated as sex objects. The only silver lining, at least according to clinical sex studies, is that everyone seems to have better sex.
LP: When I read these Where are all the Good Men gone pieces, it describes the women as talented, successful, driven, smart and attractive etc, etc. These descriptions are more relevant to university and job applications that women usually excel at.
There is nothing wrong with being professionally driven, of course, but I never read that these girls are kind, caring, nurturing, sensible, frugal, and can bake a good cake.
If you are looking for an interdependent relationship based on love and respect I am wondering if a major in gender studies really counts for much?
Perhaps it is case of Where are all the good Women gone?
JB: Well, I think the reason “Where are all the Good Men Gone” stories (as you call them) tend to focus on smart, successful career women is because those women tend to be university-educated, and university-educated women are the ones on the wrong side of today’s lopsided gender ratios. In the working-class dating market, demographics actually favour the women.
Of course, the gender gap in university enrollment would not matter so much if we were all more open-minded about whom we choose to date and eventually marry. But at least in the US (and I suspect in the UK too), the long-term trend has been towards what sociologists call “assortative mating.” That’s a fancy way of saying that both men and women tend to seek out mates from similar educational backgrounds. According to one study, the odds of a university graduate marrying a non-grad are lower today than at any point over the past 50 years. Evan Marc Katz told me he believes classism is a bigger problem in dating than racism. (Katz is a well-known dating coach and author in the US.) Thing is, educated men don’t get penalised for their classism because there’s this never-ending supply of fabulous women. Educated women do get penalised.
JB continued: One of my predictions in DATE-ONOMICS is that we will see an increase in what I call “mixed-collar marriages”— that is, university-educated women married to non-university-educated men. Personally, I do not believe that a university degree makes someone a better wife or a better husband. There are lots of good men out there who did not attend university and still earn a decent living as policemen or electricians or plumbers. Moreover, those men are dealing with a dating market that, statistically, is almost as difficult for them as the one faced by university-educated women. In the US, among single, non-university-educated people aged 22-29, there 9.4 million men versus only 7.1 million women. We just never hear about this because blue-collar men don’t write novels, screenplays or magazine articles about their dating woes.
Anyway, back to your point about never reading about single girls who are kind, sweet, nurturing and can bake a great cake. All I can say is that the reason I wrote DATE-ONOMICS is I know way too many single women in their 30s and 40s who are, in fact, kind and caring and sweet and funny. (They just happen to be clever and successful too!) These women are all good people, which is why I didn’t understand why finding love was proving so hard for them.
LP: As I blogged before, I am pretty convinced these women are holding out for the Alphas, (what they deem to be Alpha) who out-earn them even if only slightly. But if they all want the “gender pay gap” banished or reversed then this will not happen?
JB: You’re probably right. As I said, both men and women prefer to date and marry people of similar levels. The men don’t have to “hold out” because there is this never-ending supply of educated women.
I guess I’m an optimist. I think classism in dating will fade over time. In the US, you already see this happening in the African-American community, where the university gender gap is much more longstanding and much wider too. (Last year there were almost twice as many African-American women as African-American men who graduated from university).
According to Pew Research, African-American women are considerably more likely to be married to lesser-educated men. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Tyler Perry movie—he’s an African-American filmmaker— but every one of his movies seems to have a female doctor or lawyer or businesswoman married to a mechanic or construction worker with a heart of gold.
When I give speeches, I often joke that in a white movie, you’d probably need a five-minute, on-screen explanation for why Julia Roberts’s doctor character was married to a fireman. Yet in African-American films, it’s all very accepted and matter-of-fact.
I think that’s where the entire culture is eventually headed. I believe African-Americans are on the leading edge of broader social change. A change for the better.
LP: The other issue is Tinder. Again when these women are younger (under 25), they go along or are happy to participate in the Tinder hook up scene, especially as relationships will not get in the way of their career. Tinder, we can agree, can cause men to delay marriage These women were not aware or did not care what impact this had on their older sisters’ marriage prospects at the time.
Then post-25 things change, but they are now competing with the younger girls who are happy to go on Tinder. Then they ask – where is my future husband or boyfriend. To which the answer is – sleeping with your younger sister on Tinder.
So how to you challenge this culture?
JB: I’m probably the only dating expert on the planet who does not think Tinder is to blame for the hook-up culture. Look, I understand that last year’s Vanity Fair story on Tinder generated a lot of buzz, but that story was oh-so naïve. Tinder is only four years old. Is there anyone out there who honestly thinks that the hookup culture did not exist prior to 2012?
The fact is, there’s a rather long and ridiculous history of folks mistakenly blaming the latest new technology for a rise in sexual permissiveness. In the 1920s, people blamed the automobile. “A house of prostitution on wheels” is how one state court judge in the US described it. The real explanation for The Flapper Generation and for young people having more premarital sex in the 1920s had absolutely nothing to do with the automobile. It was all about demographics. Some 10 million young men died during World War I, and another 20 million were injured, many grievously. This created an incredibly lopsided dating market after the war ended.
I’d encourage you and your readers to read Irene Nemirovsky’s novel “The Fires of Autumn.” Nemirovsky came of age in 1920s France, and “The Fires of Autumn” reflects the social sensibilities of that time. In the novel, a young war widow named Therese thinks she is being courted for marriage by her childhood friend Bernard — only to discover that Bernard wants nothing more than a fling. For his part, Bernard is completely baffled by Therese’s unwillingness to carry on a casual affair. Given the shortage of young men in post-World War I Europe, Bernard says he cannot understand why any bachelor would want to settle down. “You want to have some fun?” he asks Therese rhetorically, “Fine. You don’t? Goodbye. There are too many women and they’re all too easy to make it worthwhile.”
Sound familiar? Needless to say, there was no Tinder in 1920s France.
Here’s one more rebuttal to the blame-it-on-Tinder crowd. The technology behind Tinder and other dating apps was developed in Santa Clara County, California — which is better known as Silicon Valley. And yet Tinder doesn’t seem to be having much effect on dating and marriage in that part of the US. Silicon Valley is arguably the single best marriage market in the US for university-educated women. In Santa Clara County, 78 per cent of university-educated women in their 30s are married versus just 67 per cent nationally. Santa Clara County marriages are more stable too: four per cent of those women are divorced or separated versus nine per cent nationally.
What makes Santa Clara County different? Silicon Valley attracts so many male engineers and computer programmers that Santa Clara County is now the only well-populated part of the US where the dating demographics are reversed — where single, university-educated men outnumber single, university-educated women by 38 per cent. And just as the social science on gender ratios predicts, this oversupply of men leads to more monogamy.
Bottom line: Demographics trump technology— even in the land of a million apps.
LP: What is your advice to women looking for love?
JB: Not long after my book came out, I received an email from a newly-married woman who wanted to tell me that she met her husband AFTER she un-checked the university-grad box when searching for dates on her online dating site. This woman had the right idea. Un-check that box. Skip the wine bar and try a fireman’s pub instead. Expand your dating pool to include working-class men. They’re less likely to act like jerks than guys you went to university with. Plus, they can fix your sink and change the oil in your car!
I have some other advice too, but I’m going to preface it by stating that I am not endorsing marriage nor am I assuming everyone is heterosexual. I understand that different-sex marriage is not for everyone. That being said, if you are a young, heterosexual woman who puts a very high priority on marriage, my advice would be to get serious about dating in your 20s. Do not put it off until your 30s because the marriage math gets worse over time.
From a math perspective, dating is a bit like the game musical chairs. If you ever played musical chairs as a child, you probably remember that it’s really hard to lose in the first round. Basically, you have to be slow-poke not to get a chair in the first round. By the last round, however, there is a 50 per cent chance of not getting a chair. The longer you stay in the game, the greater your chances are of losing.
In this way, musical chairs is very similar to dating. Imagine a dating pool that starts out with 40 women and 30 men—which is essentially what university-educated Millennials are facing today. Once half of those 40 women get married, the dating pool for the remaining singles becomes 20 women and 10 men. The ratio of women to men goes from 1.3 to 1 at the start of the dating game, to 2 to 1 at the midway point.
That, in a nutshell, is why dating feels so much harder for women at age 35 than it did at 25. It’s also why women would be better off searching for Mr Right at 25 than at 35.