Dating in America is completely unfair
By Ana Swanson August 26
For many women these days, it’s not “He’s just not that into you” that’s the problem. It’s that “There aren’t enough of him.”
So says Jon Birger, the author of a new book called “Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game.” The book, which Birger describes as “the least romantic book ever written about dating,” uses demographics, statistics, game theory and other wonky techniques to shed light on the surprising and growing gap between the number of college-educated women and the number of college-educated men.
The main idea is that women have been attending college at much higher rates than men since the 1980s, in the U.S. and in other countries around the world. That has led to a big demographic mismatch for people who want to date and marry others of the same educational level. The dating pool for college-educated people in their 30s now has five women for every four men. For people in their 20s, it’s four women for every three men.
The gap is even more extreme in certain places. In Manhattan, there are 38 percent more female college grads under the age of 25 than college-grad men, according to Birger’s data. The gap is 49 percent in Raleigh, N.C., 86 percent in Miami, 49 percent in Washington and 37 percent in Los Angeles. And it’s not just cities – many rural areas also have these “educated man deficits.”
As “Date-onomics” shows, this mismatch in the number of college-educated men and women leads to some surprising consequences, affecting not just dating, marriage and fidelity, but campus culture, credit card debt and even pop song lyrics.
I spoke with Birger shortly before his book was released about some of his findings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Four women graduate today for every three men. How did the college gender gap get so extreme? The last year in the U.S. that more men than women graduated from college was 1981. Since then, the college gender gap has been getting wider every year. In 2012, there were 34 percent more women than men who graduated from college. By 2023, that gap is expected to reach 47 percent.
If we had had this conversation in the ’50s or ’60s, the gender ratios would be reversed. Many more men than women were graduating from college, and there was gender bias both in secondary schooling and in college admissions.
Back then, there was this mindset that young women went to college not to prepare for careers, but to get their “MRS.” So the passage of Title IX in 1972 certainly leveled the playing field.
But I’m reluctant to attribute how we got to “50/50” entirely to Title IX, because women were making gains in college enrollment not just in the U.S., but throughout the Western world, even in countries where the policy push for equal rights evolved more slowly. I tend to agree with Claudia Goldin, who is an economist at Harvard. She argues that the big driver for college enrollment is the expectation of future labor force participation. In an era in which women were getting married young and having kids soon after, there wasn’t much of an expectation for long stays in the workforce. Goldin attributes the change to the pill, which allowed women to delay marriage and childbirth. The expectation of spending more time in the workforce made college a better investment.
But how we got to four women for every three men has more to do with biology and neuroscience. Some of the old discrimination obscured what is essentially a fundamental biological truth, that girls mature socially and intellectually faster than boys. Even though boys and girls score comparably on raw intelligence tests, when it comes to actual school work, girls fare much better. Girls are better organized, they’re more likely to be valedictorians. The girls are just better at college preparation.
You say that the growing numbers of women in college have a lot to do with the “college wage premium,” the amount people can boost their earnings by going to college, and that this premium is bigger for women than for men. Claudia Goldin, the Harvard economist, points out that the college wage premium has always been higher for women – even 100 years ago, which is interesting. But I suspect this has less to do with how fair or equal the white collar workforce is than how much worse the job opportunities are for women in the working class labor pool. One of the things I normally write about is the oil industry. If you spend any time in North Dakota, which is the big booming oil state these days, you have kids right out of high school, and 98% are men, earning 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars a year as roughnecks. Those kind of high-paying working class jobs are even harder to come by for women. That’s what makes the college wage premium so much bigger for women, because there are fewer job opportunities to earn a decent wage in blue collar jobs.
What are some of the effects of this imbalance on college campuses?
It’s clear that schools that have more men tend to have more traditional dating situations, whereas the ones that are disproportionately female tend to have more intense hookup cultures. It’s not just the social science I cite in the book, you can really see it in how kids talk about dating life at these schools. I use data in the book from Niche.com, which is a college review site. At the schools that are predominantly male, the kids talk about how students like to be in relationships. So for Georgia Tech, which is 66% male, the comment on Niche.com was, “Tech is a fairly monogamous campus.” But for the schools that are skewed female, the hookup culture becomes more intense. So James Madison, which is 63 percent female, one comment is, “The deficiency of guys creates a scene that tends to embrace random hookups.”
I want to ask you about some of the criticism. Some of these descriptions make it sound like the social progress and education that women have obtained has been a lose-lose situation: In the past women weren’t able to get college educations, today they can, but now they’re losing in this other realm. Is it implying that less educated men are still winning – they don’t go to college but they still get the pick of all these educated, more promiscuous women?
Actually, it’s the opposite. Less educated men are actually facing as challenging a dating and marriage market as the educated women. So for example, among non-college educated men in the U.S. age 22 to 29, there are 9.4 million single men versus 7.1 million single women. So the lesser-educated men face an extremely challenging data market. They do not have it easy at all.
Now, if your point is that the men who are educated have stumbled into a particularly good dating market through no work of their own, that’s right. The dating market does favor the college educated man right now.
Should we care that fewer men are attending college? Is the lop-sided gender ratio bad for women as well as men?
I don’t think it’s a good thing. I want to preface that by saying I’m not the moral majority here, and I’m not judging people for how many or how few sex partners they have, or how much or little sex they have, I literally don’t care. And I’m also not assuming that only men favor the hookup culture, and women generally don’t like the hookup culture. I’m also not saying that everybody should get married, or that everyone has to prioritize family or marriage over career. But I do believe in people being able to make informed decisions. And so, if a high school senior is applying to college, and is unenthusiastic about the hookup culture, I think they should know that at a school like Boston University or Sarah Lawrence with a particularly lopsided gender ratio will have a more extreme hookup culture. And people should know generally that the average gender ratio on campus these days is 57 to 43, which is one-third more women than men, and that is going to lead to a more libertine, a looser sexual culture on campus.
So yes, we should definitely care. I also think it’s not a good thing that men don’t attend college at the same rate that women attend college. We need a more educated workforce to compete, and one of the ways we could accomplish that is by closing this gender gap and having more boys attend college. How would we go about solving this problem, then? I think this is a largely a developmental issue. The real issue is that boys lag at least a year behind girls, both intellectually and socially, when it comes to brain maturity. As a result, boys don’t perform as well in school. I do think that if we essentially red-shirted boys and had them begin kindergarten a year later than girls, it would go a long way toward closing this gap. And in fact, the handful of western countries, like Switzerland and Finland, where both boys and girls start school later, tend to have smaller college gender gaps.
The other thing is that, in the years to come, I think we’re going to be hearing more about what I call “mixed-collar marriages,” which are pairings of college-educated career women married to working class, non-college educated men. What are some of the unequal dating markets for men and women? The best for college-educated women in terms of cities is San Jose. The employers in Silicon Valley tend to draw lots of programmers and computer scientists, and those fields tend to be disproportionately male. It’s really the only well populated part of the country where there is a double-digit percentage gap with more young college grad men than women. San Francisco is the second best, probably for similar reasons. The third best, which is interesting, is Columbus, Ohio, which has a big high-tech job market. Looking at college-educated people age 22-29, the three best cities for men are Fort Lauderdale, Fla, where there are 71 percent more women than men; Providence, R.I., with 60 percent more women than men, and then Portland, Ore., at 56 percent. OKCupid recently named Portland the most promiscuous city in the U.S., and I strongly suspect that’s related to the gender ratio. You say in the book, “I realize that most people do not want to think about supply and demand when contemplating matters of the heart.” Why don’t people want to think about that?
Sometimes glibly I’ll describe this book as the least romantic book ever written about dating, and obviously the core ideas of this book don’t leave room for serendipity or magic. My argument, as I say in the book, is more macro than micro. I’m not saying that two people can’t be made for each other and fall in love and live happily ever after. Obviously individuals are going to meet the right person, or sometimes have poor luck when it comes to marriage and dating, for reasons that have nothing to do with sex ratios. But I don’t think people like the idea of market forces influencing who they may or may not end up with, or how their dating pool shapes up, because it does remove any room for all the things that we like to think about when it comes to romance, the unquantifiable parts.
Ana Swanson is a reporter for Wonkblog specializing in business, economics, data visualization and China. She also works on Know More, Wonkblog’s social media channel.
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