After journalist Jon Birger entered his 30s, he began to notice a pattern in his social circle: Most of the men he knew were married or in a relationship and most of the women he knew were single and having a hard time dating. These women had “everything going for them,” he told The Huffington Post, yet they either couldn’t get dates or were stuck dealing with men who toyed with them.
Birger became curious about his anecdotal experience and wanted to see if there were statistics to back up what his single female friends were going through — and there were. He believes that the lopsided dating scene in large U.S. cities like New York all comes down to a gender ratio which favors men. In the U.S. as a whole, men and women are split about 50/50, but that ratio shifts when you look at the number of college graduates by gender: Women between 25 and 34 are 21 percent more likely than men to be college graduates, according to 2013 data.
In this environment, educated heterosexual women who wish to date men who also graduated college must navigate a playing field in which guys have significantly more dating prospects, a phenomenon Birger calls the “man deficit.” Birger’s new book Date-onomics centers around this very concept, and offers a not-so-romantic aerial view of the contemporary dating landscape.
“A lot of the women who I talked to about this felt like they must be doing something wrong or it must be their fault,” he said. “I think, for at least some of them, it was reassuring to know that it wasn’t just in their heads.”
In conversation with The Huffington Post, Birger explained exactly how the “man deficit” plays out, who has better odds in the dating pool and what women might want to do once they understand the demographics:
Your theory centers around the concept of a “man deficit.” What exactly does that mean?
Women have been graduating from college at a higher rate than men going back to the early ‘80s, and at a much higher rate than men going back to the ‘90s. These college graduation rates and gender ratios have spilled over into the post-college dating market. Of course, none of this would matter if we were all more open-minded about who we were willing to date and marry — both college-educated men and women have become less willing to date and marry non-college-educated people.
[In this environment], men take advantage. A core part of my argument is that the college and post-college hookup culture is to a large extent a product of these gender ratios. There’s a lot of social science on this, and it all points to the ideas that men delay marriage and play the field when women are in oversupply. When it’s the opposite, the culture is more likely to emphasize courtship and romance.
In your opinion, has online dating affected this dynamic?
I’m probably going to be in the minority in this argument, but my point of view is that it doesn’t really matter. I know everybody thinks Tinder is causing the hookup culture, but the reality is that there’s actually a history of blaming new technologies for young people having more sex.
Honestly, a lot of the guys I interviewed who you’d probably think are the most schmuck-y, so to speak, were doing it the old-fashioned way. They were going up to pretty women in bars and buying them drinks. They didn’t have their heads in their phones. This is a lofty way of me saying that I think stuff like Tinder are symptoms, not the cause.
You explain how, unlike women of other races, Asian-American women are immune to the man deficit. Why do you think that is?
I was completely confused by that. Initially, I wanted to see what groups were more or less affected by the man deficit. I assumed, since Asians are more likely to be college-educated than non-Asians, I’d write about Asian women and explore how vulnerable they are to the man deficit because so many of them are college-educated. But it turns out that I was 100 percent wrong. If you look at the census data, Asian women marry at a much higher rate than non-Asian women.
I couldn’t figure out why, though. I was talking to one of my Asian friends, and she said, “It’s funny — when I was in high school, nobody wanted to date the Asian girl, but something happened in the ‘90s where suddenly everybody wanted to date the Asian girl.” For her, the cultural touchstone of this was that “Seinfeld” episode [in which Jerry is disappointed that his date isn’t Chinese]. In the book, I try to stay away from the “why” part.
But there are studies out there showing that men in general perceive Asian women as most attractive. Then there was this terrific data from OKCupid that tracked message response rates for people of different races. The takeaway was that Asian-American women have the highest response rates. This even held true among lesbians.
You generally stayed away from giving advice in the book, but you wrote that college-educated women who want to marry college-educated men are better off marrying “Mr. Perfectly Acceptable,” rather than holding out until 40 for Mr. Right. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I want to preface this by saying that I totally get that not everybody prioritizes marriage over career. Even for people who want to get married, it may not be their highest priority in life. Really, all I’m doing is trying to help people make informed decisions. A woman who puts an extremely high priority on getting married should know that every year you’re in the dating market, the numbers get worse for you.
I liken it to musical chairs. In the first round of musical chairs, really only the kid who isn’t paying attention doesn’t get a chair. But by the last round, you have a 50 percent chance of losing. In every successive round of the game, the odds of being left out increase.
This is also what happens in dating. If you start out in a dating pool of 140 women and 100 men, which is probably not unlike what young women in New York are staring at, that starts out as a 1.4 to one ratio. Once half of the women in this dating pool get married — so 70 women marry 70 men — the ratio among the remaining singles becomes greater than two to one. If you’re on the wrong end of the gender ratio — like college-educated women in general — every year you hold out, the dating market is going to be statistically more challenging.”
Numbers aside, do you think people are able to think in these terms? How does one know who is “Mr. Perfectly Acceptable”?
I’m an old married guy — I’m 46 and have been married for 20 plus years. If you talk to people who have been married for a long time, they’ll tell you there’s an element of compromise in all marriages, in all successful marriages. Sometimes the compromise is part of the fun. It would be boring if you were 100 percent perfectly compatible I think, and maybe others would disagree. There’s always a level of compromise in a marriage, no matter what the situation.
You argue that ultimatums can help women in this type of environment. How so?
In every other part of life — in business and politics — everybody understands the power of the ultimatum. But for some reason, people resist it when it comes to romance. The reality is that an ultimatum creates artificial scarcity in an otherwise abundant marketplace. It makes you want more of what you perceive you may lose.
One of these truisms that you hear in business is that you should never make a decision until you absolutely have to. If you’re a single 35-year-old man in Miami, Chicago or New York, every year the dating market becomes a little bit better for you. Why make a decision about one woman now when you can keep her as an option and continue exploring the market? I feel that the ultimatum is a way to push back against the male desire not to make a decision any sooner than he had to.
You want it to happen naturally and organically, obviously. I get that and I get that what I’m saying is highly non-romantic, but I’m making an argument about what I think works, rather than what makes for the best love story.
How do you recommend that women approach their dating lives in such a lopsided market?
I’m going to preface this with: I’m not a dating coach — I’m a middle-aged guy and I’m not telling people how to live their lives. I’m just a believer in informed choices.
All things being equal, if you’re just starting out your career and you have one job offer in Manhattan and another job offer in Silicon Valley or San Jose, and you’re on the fence between the two jobs and you’re a monogamy- or marriage-minded heterosexual, my suggestion would be to put these gender ratios on your list of things to consider. Cities like Seattle or Silicon Valley or San Francisco or Denver have less lopsided or even male-skewed gender ratios among college grads, so the dating environment is going to be more woman-friendly.
At the same time, I totally get that a 45-year-old woman is not going to pick up her entire life and leave everything behind to go move to Denver. I realize that that’s not a realistic suggestion for some people.
So what would you tell women who aren’t willing to pick up and move?
If they’re online dating in a big city, one thing they could consider is to include the suburbs in their searches. I know it sounds counterintuitive, because it’s easy to think that all of the guys in the suburbs are going to be married. But in fact, generally speaking, the gender ratios among single college grads are less lopsided in the suburbs than they are in big cities.
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