The man deficit

Well-educated women who are single remain so because there are fewer well-educated men around, says author Jon Birger


By Jon Birger

Workman Publishing/Paperback/ 220 pages/$27.04 from Books Kinokuniya

When American social psychologist Marcia Guttentag took her teenage daughter Lisa to the opera for the first time one evening in the 1970s, little did she guess that it would inspire her to write a book that is still being taught in top American universities today.

After they sat through Mozart's The Magic Flute, she asked her daughter what she thought of it. Her daughter said Mozart's lyrics were "strange" to her because they had the men singing about "wanting to make a lifelong commitment to one woman - a wife".

In contrast, Guttentag later noted in her seminal 1983 book, Too Many Women?: The Sex Ratio Question, her daughter was growing up in an age when songs were of the "love 'em and leave 'em" bent.

At that time, Guttentag was the director of the families and stress research project at Harvard University. What, she wondered, had changed in heterosexual romances between Mozart's 18th century and Lisa's 20th century?

She and Paul Secord, her second husband and fellow academic, set out to answer that question. The result was Too Many Women, which Secord had to complete after Guttentag died unexpectedly at the age of 44 in 1977.

From their research, the Secords concluded that whenever men outnumber women in society, the men prize women more and want to commit to, and protect them, more readily. But whenever women outnumber men, the men tend to treat them as "mere sex objects". This led women to undergo drastic plastic surgery, indulge in premarital sex and wind up aborting embryos - all in the service of trying to snag a good husband. In one grim instance, a female undergraduate told her university counsellor that she "felt proud" at having lost her virginity - in a session of group sex.

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The Secords said the upshot of imbalanced gender ratios "has profound effects on sexual behaviour and sexual mores, patterns of marriage and divorce, child-rearing conditions and practices, family stability, and certain structural aspects of society itself".

Their compatriot, business journalist Jon Birger, has now taken up their baton on gender ratios, albeit approaching it differently.

The freelance journalist, who used to write for Fortune and Money magazines, turned his hand to armchair sociology because his never-married colleagues were "disproportionately female".

The result is Date-onomics, which uses the lens of economics to solve the love doldrums of bachelorettes, as Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt did for incentives.

Crunching masses of data mainly from the United States Census Bureau, Birger shows well- educated single women who are 20 or older that, as he puts it in the book, "it's not that he's not just not that into you, it's that there aren't enough of him".

His number crunching found that there are actually fewer well- educated bachelors today than bachelorettes in the United States, as well as in Argentina, Iceland and Malaysia.

There are deeper social implications of majority-male versus majority-female campuses, as Birger and the Secords found.

Their research showed that as women on mostly female tertiary institutions were often throwing themselves at men, resulting in sex on the first date rather than courting, their counterparts had almost "a free harem" at their doorstep.

Sadly, Birger found, this was fuelling the trend towards raping women on campus.

Conversely, at the majority-male California Institute of Technology, for example, its male students would do things such as wake up early on Valentine's Day to make pancakes for their female classmates.

The last place that brainy heterosexual bachelorettes should be looking for true love is New York City which, fittingly, is the setting for Sex And The City, the hit television show about desperate glamorous single women.

  • New York City is the last place attractive single women should look for love, says author Jon Birger. It is also the setting for Sex And The City (left), the hit television show about desperate glamorous single women.


  • 1 How are people no different from animals in matters of the heart?

    2 What is fuelling the sexually liberated hook-up culture in many societies today?

    3 Who among eligible singles today are least affected by changes in the proportions of men to women in society?

    4 Where should well-educated bachelorettes live to boost their chances of settling down?

    5 What qualities are men looking for in women today?

Birger factors in the impact of the gay and lesbian community on the chances of heterosexual bachelorettes getting hitched.

While the US Census Bureau does not poll Americans on their sexual orientation, Birger estimates that if 11 per cent of men under 40 in New York City are gay, and 1.5 per cent of women under 40 are lesbians, then there are even fewer heterosexual marriageable men.

He then recommends Santa Clara County in California, where Silicon Valley is, as the wellspring of future happiness for single women. They call the city of San Jose there "Man Jose", he notes only in half-jest.

What is most intriguing about Birger's book for Asian readers is his highlight of a study by Columbia University business school don Wei Shang-Jin and his compatriot Zhang Xiaobo, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The duo's research showed that China's galloping growth in GDP between 2000 and 2005 was most likely fuelled by the scarcity of marriageable women in China. China's GDP grew at a breathtaking pace of 10 per cent year after year in that period where there were 122 men for every 100 women in that period.

Wei and Zhang found that had a lot to do with marriageable men and their families there having to work harder and be more entrepreneurial to become rich enough to satisfy the demands of their future wives and in-laws.

As Birger quotes a woman from China saying at one point: "I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of my boyfriend's bicycle."

He comes off as linear at best in most of his assertions. Date- onomics is really a book within a book, and the Secords' portion of it is more enlightening to the general reader than Birger's data.

Just a minute

1. American business journalist Jon Birger's style is clean and crisp. This heightens the urgency of his very focused, if rather narrow, inquiry as to why single women who have everything going for them cannot seem to get married. His assured, light touch also makes for a narrative that propels the reader on, even after the reader stumbles on his occasional damp squibs masquerading as jokes. 2. He has done extensive legwork on the subject, dipping into anything from evolutionary biology to women's focus groups for proof that demographics, not culture, stand in the way of a single woman and her yearning for a family of her own. He has leveraged a lot on his extensive network of business contacts. For example, he cites an attractive bachelorette rebutting Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg thus, when Sandberg urged her to "lean in", or lead her company: "How can I lean in when at 5pm I need to leave the office to go to a bar?" The woman was, of course, referring to having to hang out at pubs in search of a life partner. 3. He takes care to include views that contradict his own. These include those who run universities, who disagree with him that they should admit more men to balance the proportion of women to men in their institutions. Birger's point is simply that people should make informed choices, which is why he decided to crunch census numbers and write this controversial book.

1. Birger is focused, perhaps too tightly, on his argument that there is a "man deficit" in the US, which is what he calls the fact that there are fewer well-educated, straight single men compared with female Americans of the same ilk. He has, however, found that there is one group of women who buck this trend, Asian- American women. About 88 per cent of straight, brainy Asian-American women are married, compared with 77 per cent of American women of Caucasian descent. Alas, Birger refuses to delve deeper into why this is so. Instead, he writes dismissively in Date-onomics: "For my purposes, it doesn't really matter why men perceive Asian-American women as especially desirable. Whether the root cause is racial stereotype or biology, what's important is that this racial preference is real."

What a bald-faced, and entirely unhelpful, assertion.

1. Birger sometimes makes mountains out of molehills, especially if those molehills are all about common sense. For example, does he really need surveys to tell him that well-educated single women try their darnedest to be financially independent when they sense that they are unlikely to get married?

Fact file

He likes to play matchmaker

American business journalist Jon Birger enjoys playing matchmaker for his many single friends, perhaps because his marriage has been so successful.

Birger, who is in his 40s, is married to American lawyer Laura Grossfield and they have three children. They wed when they were both 24 and Birger jokes that the only time their relationship is an issue is when he wants to take a punt on the stock exchange.

As he told his ex-colleague, journalist Farnoosh Torabi, in her podcast So Money on Sept 29 last year: "My wife is a partner at a law firm, she has a million conflict-of- interest business because of corporate clients. So I can't invest in a lot of individual stocks without her having to go through a whole complicated disclosure process."

Still, his years as a reporter for, among others, Fortune and Money magazines - to say nothing of being a regular commentator and contributor on CNN, CNBC, The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek - has given him enough to buy a nice big house for his family in the New York suburb of Larchmont.

Birger, now a freelance journalist, tells Torabi, though, that if he won the lottery, he would like to live in a beachhouse on Rhode Island, near the home of pop star Taylor Swift.

Born to a chemical engineer and a housewife, Birger grew up in a suburb of Boston and read history at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Journalism, his chosen profession, also gave him the kernel for his book, Date-onomics.

Birger, who teams up with his wife to play matchmaker for friends, says: "The staff at Fortune and Money were disproportionately female, and single or unhappily single. I guess it was a curiosity for me at the time."

His curiosity, however, did not immediately translate to a commitment to write Date-onomics over three years. As he admitted to Torabi: "I wasn't sure whether I had the stick-to-it-iveness to commit to the project with such a long gestation period."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'The man deficit '. Subscribe