“It’s not that he’s just not that into you—it’s that there aren’t enough of him.”
So runs the tagline for Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, a new book by business journalist Jon Birger. Having observed a number of attractive, accomplished women struggling to find spouses—a phenomenon many in the church have noticed as well—Birger wondered:
What if the hookup culture on today’s college campuses and the wild ways of the big-city singles scene have little to do with changing values and a whole lot to do with lopsided gender ratios that pressure 19-year-old girls to put out and discourage 30-year-old guys from settling down? What if, in other words, the man deficit were real?
His research showed that, yes, there are more single, college-educated women than men in the United States, particularly in major cities. He attributes the “man deficit” to a number of factors. The Baby Boom of the 1940s, combined with the long-held convention of men marrying younger women, created a situation where multiple younger women were available for each man. Then, in recent decades, women began to outnumber men in college, skewing the dating scene further in men’s favor.
The disparity is especially stark in religious groups—Birger studied Mormons and Orthodox Jews—since men are leaving religion behind at higher rates than women. These days, the old courtship formulas no longer apply: A devout woman, instead of being likelier to marry, may very well find herself alone.
That last example is particularly poignant. As religious groups emphasize marriage and family, some view prolonged singleness as a failure. Birger talked with bewildered matchmakers and parents desperate enough to pay huge dowries.
In response to this anxiety, women position themselves to compete for fewer single men. He recalls anecdotes of Jewish girls starting strict diets in their teens, escalating to anorexia in adulthood. Many single Mormon women embrace elaborate beauty routines, plastic surgery, and breast implants. The statistics on dating in their communities—discussed in this chapter excerpted in Time—back up the contention that there’s a very real demographic issue at work here.
I’m not a numbers person, so I didn’t always find Birger’s statistics-heavy arguments easy to follow, though he did his best to simplify them. But I appreciated this approach because it was so refreshingly different from the implied judgment in many books about singleness.
He’s not out to scold men or shame women for not being married. Nor does he complain about women being too educated or career-minded, though this does make it harder for them to find men with comparable backgrounds. Instead, Date-onomics simply discusses the patterns and trends that led to the lopsided singles scene we’re seeing now.
Practicing Christians will disagree with Birger in places; for example, he has no problem with premarital sex. But we stand to learn from his tone, and his desire to explain rather than blame. It’s a great relief to hear that not only is singleness not something to be ashamed of, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s not even the woman’s fault! It’s just a numbers game.
Still, Birger critiques aspects of the singles scene in which men have the upper hand. Their numerical advantage tends to turn them into players, or make them reluctant to marry, as both Christian and non-Christian women can testify. One woman told Birger, “It’s like a lot of men don’t see us as people… I’ve had guys in New York [where the gender gap is especially wide] admit to me that they expect women to be faithful to them but still be able to play the field themselves.”
And men openly agree. Multiple single guys confessed that, even when dating a beautiful, smart, adventurous woman, they kept looking for someone a little more beautiful, smarter, and more adventurous. Of course, this puts great pressure on already impressive women to be perfect; any difference of opinion or physical imperfection can get them dumped in favor of someone prettier or more agreeable.
This attitude fits with Birger’s predictions for how people behave when their gender is in demand. But seeing it play out is sobering. However demographics prompt us to act, we are still obligated to live virtuously. As Birger puts it, even though our demographic patterns and related habits are similar to those of certain animal species, “People, unlike animals, have a moral compass—an ability to rise above our baser instincts.” For Christians, of course, those virtues include chastity. But they should also include courtesy and respect—a refusal to objectify or mistreat a woman in any way, even if a man isn’t interested in her as a romantic partner.
One of Birger’s forerunners was psychologist Marcia Guttentag, who wrote about the “marriage squeeze” back in the 1960s and ’70s. Guttentag took her teenage daughter to hear Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and both of them were startled to hear men singing “about wanting to make a lifelong commitment to one woman—a wife.” Birger writes:
Both mother and daughter observed similarities between The Magic Flute and the idealized depiction of women in popular American songs of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—before America’s gender ratio swung from more men than women to more women than men… By the 1960s and ’70s, however, music’s romantic themes had given way to a more sexualized ”love ’em and leave ’em” ethos.
I know the feeling. I’ve watched hundreds of classic movies, but it’s still strange to see the male leads actually pursuing women, even when formidable obstacles are in their way. For someone all too familiar with the one-date-and-never-calling-again pattern followed even by many Christian men, the idea of lasting pursuit is appealing but foreign.
Even being let down gently is no longer the norm. For many of us Christian women, resigned after years on the dating scene, a few kind words would make a big difference. Men don’t have to be scared that they’re “leading us on” just because they treat us with care and consideration.
When we see Census figures showing more educated women in their 20s and 30s remaining single, we often blame them for supposedly waiting to get married. A deeper examination of the dating scene makes it clear that men’s attitudes—a result of being the gender “in demand”—are a major factor.
There’s little we can do to even the playing field, except maybe moving to one of the few areas with a disproportionate number of single men. But we can at least recognize the reality of the dating gender gap.
Perhaps this knowledge itself will help put single women at ease (it’s really not you) rather than forcing them to compete more fiercely. Men’s lack of urgency over marriage (believing there will always be women around, and they can get married at any age) has serious effects on a society-wide scale. For Christian men who do want to marry, this could be a wakeup call to date intentionally right now.
Demographics can help explain how we got where we are, but where we go from here is up to us.