We all have that friend: the beautiful, intelligent, driven woman who—like Katherine Heigl in every rom-com—can't find a decent date. Every guy she goes out with is an asshole; she consistently dates "below" her league, and she's on the verge of giving up on a committed relationship altogether.
Not long after he turned 30, the writer Jon Birger realized he and his wife knew a lot of women like that. The couple didn't have a lot of single male friends left, but the many single women they knew all seemed to be buyers stuck in a seller's market. One of those friends, Birger told me, "had been dating a guy for a couple years. It certainly seemed like they were well on their way to getting married. She was in her late 30s, he was in his mid 40s. She really wants to have kids, get married, the whole [thing]. And she's amazing in every way."
One day at lunch, Birger casually asked her about her boyfriend. "Her whole expression changed," Birger recalled. They had just broken up. "They'd been dating for over two years and he said he 'just wasn't ready to settle down.'"
This got Birger, a former economics writer for Fortune and Money, thinking: How could a man of that age be so cavalier about casting aside such an amazing woman? And why do we all have similar stories of incredible female friends trapped for years in dating hell? Why are there so many great single women? Where are all the great single men?
Using his background in economics and statistics, Birger sought out an answer. The result is his new book, Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, a clever read with a sobering conclusion: There simply aren't enough college-educated men to go around. For every four college-educated women in my generation, there are three college-educated men. The result? What Birger calls a "musical chairs" of the heart: As the men pair off with partners, unpartnered straight women are left with fewer and fewer options—and millions of them are eventually left with no options at all.
I sat down for a long talk with Birger and found out why boys aren't graduating from college, why your best friend is single, and why more women should consider moving to Silicon Valley.
VICE: How did you determine that there was this nation-wide "man deficit" among the college-educated?
Jon Birger: I think when I began the research, I actually thought the conclusion was a little different. I assumed this was a New York problem or a big city thing. Like in New York, I [thought] it had something to do with the labor market here; fashion and PR and media attract a lot of women and Wall Street isn't nearly the all-male bash that it used to be, so I figured there would be all those shifts in the labor market—[I thought] maybe there was something unique about LA and Washington and New York that make them particularly bad for women. It turns out I was wrong. In fact, what I call the "college man deficit" is worse in rural states like Montana and West Virginia and Mississippi than it is in California and New York. It's a nationwide phenomenon.
So, where are all the men?
I mean they exist, they're just not going to college. This isn't China or India where they have a man-made gender imbalance because of all sorts of horrendous things. [Men are] out there, they're just not going to college. Last year about 35 percent more women than men graduated from college.
The Department of Education projects that by the class of 2023, there will be 47 percent more women than men [graduating from college]. That's three women for every two men, essentially. Obviously, none of this would matter if we were all a little more open-minded about who we are willing to date and marry. But there have been multiple studies on this and it turns out Americans have become less likely, over the past 50 years, to marry and date across educational lines. So educational intermarriage—I don't know if that's a real term, maybe I just made it up—is at its lowest rate in 50 years.
Does that mean in the working-class dating market there are a lot of single men? What implications does that have?
Among non-college-educated singles ages 22 to 29, there are 9.4 million men and 7.1 million women. And if you look at the women in that age group who are non-college-educated, something like 30 percent of the women are married but only 22 percent of the men are married.
"Being unwilling to consider working-class guys affects women in ways that it doesn't affect men. It's totally unfair, and I get that."
The other interesting thing—and you see this in China too—if you look at census data on fully-employed, non-college-educated men age 25 to 30, the ones who are married earn 20 percent more than the ones who are not married. Which tells me that in order to get married and attract a wife, you have to earn more and be more entrepreneurial and work harder.
Is there also an issue for American women where the more educated you are, the smaller your dating pool becomes? It feels that the smarter you are as a woman, the smaller your dating pool is, because women seem less likely to date men less intelligent than themselves.
It's not just women, both men and women are unlikely to date and marry across those lines. It just doesn't matter for the men because the pool of educated women is so vast that their own classism doesn't really punish them. But being unwilling to consider working-class guys affects women in ways that it doesn't affect men. It's totally unfair, and I get that, but it's not like only the women are choosy and the men are all open-minded.
Fair enough. What are some of the things women can do to increase their likelihood of finding a partner, other than considering working-class guys? I mean, are there "women deserts" they can go to?
How old are you?
So what I'm about to say is easier advice for somebody who's 23 or 22. What I'm about to tell you is probably not workable for a 45-year-old with a whole life here in New York, a family, a career: It's not an absolute, but as you go from the East coast to the West Coast, the ratios among college grads get a little better.
There are certain pockets. Far and away, the best dating market in the country for women is Silicon Valley, San Jose, San Francisco. Even with the gay population, San Francisco is still far better. So if you're just starting out—I'm not saying you're going to base your whole life around...
Finding a man, yeah.
But if you're really marriage-oriented and this is a high priority for you and you have geographical flexibility, you just might want to put this on your list, you know. San Jose, Denver, Seattle—those are going to be better dating markets for women than Miami or Fort Lauderdale or New York.
That's really interesting because it also speaks to tech's problem as a very, very male-dominated industry...
Right. Back East, the city with the best gender ratio is probably Columbus, Ohio, which has a real burgeoning tech community there.
I'm making a quantitative argument not a qualitative argument. I don't know if these [tech] guys are good guys or whether—I don't know if they can carry on a conversation or not.
I'm just telling you by the numbers I think they're less likely to act like dickheads because they don't have the same kind of leverage.
Why are more women graduating from college than men?
Obviously, if we'd had this conversation 40 years ago, this conversation would have looked different. There would have been a lot more [college-educated] men than women. Once upon a time, colleges were discriminating blatantly against female applicants, thinking they only went to college to get their Mrs. degrees. High schools did a particularly wretched job when it came to teaching girls in math and sciences. So there are a whole host of reasons why girls underperformed in high school and were discriminated against when it came to college applications, but Title IX leveled the playing field.
But I'm reluctant to entirely credit Title IX because women started attending college in other countries, where there was no Title IX, and the gains remained around the same time. So the question is, if it's not Title IX what is it?
Claudia Golden, who is an economist at Harvard, her conclusion is that it's the [birth-control] pill. Her argument is that the big driver of gains in female college enrollment is the expectation of workforce participation. If you're getting married at 21 or 22 and having kids soon thereafter, the payoff of going to college is very small. If you can plan your life with greater certainty and delay marriage and childbirth, the investment value of college goes up. So she credits the pill.
That kind of explains how we got to 50/50 enrollment; it doesn't explain how we got to 58/42. And my argument is that the old discrimination [against women] obscured a fundamental biological truth: Girls' brains mature at a faster rate than boys' brains, girls mature [faster] socially and intellectually. They're about a year ahead of boys. When it comes to actual schoolwork, girls do their homework better, girls are more organized, they're less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, they don't get put in jail [at the same rates]. So I think girls have a developmental advantage when it comes to college preparation.
So at the rates we're going, is there going to have to be affirmative action for boys, to keep things even?
A lot of elite private colleges are already engaging in quiet, de-facto, under-the-table affirmative action for boys. I went to Brown. The acceptance rate for boys is 11 percent; for girls it's 7 percent. The worst example is Vassar. Their acceptance rate for boys is 34 percent and for girls it's 18 or 19 percent.
What's interesting is that if you look at the top public universities that are bound by Title IX [when it comes to admissions], they all accept girls at a higher rate than boys.
Girls are better applicants.
"It's a chicken-and-egg thing. If marriage is harder to come by, do you seek it less?"
Do you think that the attitude of men in their 30s and 40s who don't feel the need to settle down can be chalked up purely to the way the deck is stacked in their favor?
The one thing I never totally decided on was how much of this is conscious versus subconscious. So when a young woman or a young man gets to a school [where there are a lot] more women than men, and there's this highly intense hook-up culture, is it, "Well, there are three of us for every two of them, I'm going to change my behavior as a result," or is it a "when in Rome" kind of thing?
Or is it that attitudes towards marriage are changing? Do you think that my generation just places less of a value on long-term romantic commitment?
Well, it's a chicken-and-egg thing. If marriage is harder to come by, do you seek it less? I mean, the marriage rate for women in Silicon Valley is much higher than New York's. And the divorce rate's lower too.
What else did you find out about divorce?
It seems obvious that if women are in short supply then you're going to try harder to hold on to [your wife]. There's actually a lot of social science [research] on sex ratios that grows out of animal behavior and zoology. There's a study in the book I reference—what researchers will do is look at nominally monogamous species. They'll [mess] around with the sex ratios in a control population and take the ratio from 5:5 to six males for every four females to start. What they found is that the male desertion rate, once they made the population overly male, declined from 22 percent to 11 percent.
Because they don't have any other options.
But wait for this. When they took it the other way and made it six females for every four males, the male desertion rate went from 22 percent to 52 percent. So the prevailing mating culture went from monogamy to polygamy, just by changing the prevailing sex ratio.
The argument is that it's actually an evolutionary adaptation, because in an environment in which females are scarce and you want to pass along your genes to the next generation, making big investments in parenting efforts make a lot of sense. But when females are plentiful, the best mating strategy emphasizes mating effort over parenting effort.
Is there any silver lining to this for women?
There has been some reaction from women who found [the book] life-affirming, because they realize it's not them. They had been blaming themselves for their lack of success [in the dating world], and this was kind of assuring in some way.
It's hugely reassuring, I think.
But there are others who find it massively depressing.
How do you comfort your single friends—"Oh, you'll find someone"—when statistically, many of them won't unless they lower their standards?
See, I hate the "lower your standards thing," because I'm always thinking about my friend [who married a janitor] and I don't view [their marriage] as "lowering your standards." I view this as making a different kind of choice.
And as an older married guy, I also have something else to add: All marriage involves compromise. You'll learn this. Sometimes the fun part of marriage is working through the compromise and figuring out your comfort zones. So the "lowering your standards" thing ekes me a little bit—if lowering your standards means marrying an asshole, I'm with you. But if it means [marrying someone who] makes $60,000 instead of $600,000 I'm resisting that.
"My belief, my hope, is that once you shine a light on this stuff the behavior will change."
More and more women are deciding to live independent lives and not get married; could that trend actually be the result of there just not being enough men?
It's very important to understand that I am not endorsing marriage. I am not endorsing monogamy. I think people can lead fulfilled lives without getting married.
You can also ask the same question about hookup culture. I'm not the morality police, but at the same time I kind of wonder if men and women—women in particular—would be less enthused about hookup culture if traditional relationships were more available. I don't know the answer to that, but I wonder.
So is my generation headed for an absolute trainwreck of divorce and loneliness? It sounds like a perfect storm.
It does sound like a perfect storm. However, we are not voles or fish, we have a moral compass that animals do not. So my belief, my hope, is that once you shine a light on this stuff the behavior will change. I kind of believe that once everybody knows that guys are acting like pigs or that women are better off expanding their dating pool, the behavior will change.
I also think that [people will start] dating across educational lines. I think it's inevitable, given the way the numbers are, and actually if you look at the African-American community where there's almost twice as many women graduating from college as men, these [cross-educational] pairings are far more common. There's some Pew research data showing that African-American women are more likely to marry men [who are less educated than them.]
Are there any societies where men outnumber women, or where women have the power that men have in America?
China. There was a semi-recent story in Bloomberg, and it quoted a young couple who were about to start having a family. The dad said, "Oh, I hope I have a girl, having a boy is just too expensive." Because in the middle-upper class in China, it's now accepted that in order to be marriageable a young man has to own his own apartment. In Shanghai, that could be $300,000 to $400,000, and he has to own a car, too. This creates pressure not only on the young man but on the family, to be able to afford to help him. It's a reverse dowry, essentially.
Check out Jon Birger's book, Dateonomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, out now.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter.