These young, professional women are all well educated, fun-loving, attractive, talented – and starved of a boyfriend. Ellie Austin reveals why girls are losing out in the relationship numbers game.
It’s a rainy May evening and I’m having dinner with some of my closest girlfriends. They’re an eclectic bunch drawn from school, university and the four years I’ve lived in London: a lawyer, a travel writer, a start-up executive and a former financial analyst who recently gave up her handsome salary and New York apartment to study Middle Eastern politics.
Professional differences aside, these young women have a lot in common. They are all incredibly driven. They are funny, brilliant company. At awkward drinks parties, they’re the ones striking up conversations and putting people at ease. They are well travelled and speak foreign languages. They devour books and art exhibitions, but will be the first ones dancing to Justin Bieber on a night out.
Essentially – and I’m not just being a gushing friend – they are the most attractive, accomplished people I know. If I were a man, I would be falling over myself to date them. But they are all single and are starting to lose hope of ever finding boyfriends.
“I haven’t had a relationship for six years,” says Amber, 26, over mouthfuls of macaroni cheese, “and I’m not denying I’d love one. I moved to London expecting a pool of exciting, single people, but I so rarely come across a guy I find attractive. When I do, he usually freaks out at the thought of anything serious.”
Harriet, 27, broke up with her last boyfriend three years ago. “Most men at work are in relationships, as are the best ones from university,” she sighs. “It feels like you’re left with the offcuts – guys who want to sleep around or are heartbroken from their last relationship. Whereas my single girlfriends are intelligent, rational people, always doing interesting things. According to romcoms, we should be bumping into interesting men left, right and centre, but it doesn’t happen.”
We shouldn’t mistake impressive jobs and outward confidence as a sign that young women have everything sorted. We don’t
On paper, today’s young women are more empowered than ever. Last year, British women between the ages of 22 and 29 reversed the gender pay gap, outearning their male counterparts. Much has rightly been made of the knock-on effect of this shift on men and their concept of masculinity. But we shouldn’t mistake impressive jobs and outward confidence as a sign that young women have everything sorted. We don’t – particularly when it comes to relationships.
It is not that my friends and I (single for seven years) feel incomplete without a boyfriend. Far from it. I have lived alone for three of my four years in London and – bar the odd slow Sunday when friends are tied up with parents/partners/hangovers – I have loved it. I enjoy dashing from work to meet friends for dinner, but equally relish nights in on my own with a salmon stir-fry and The Affair on a box set. We travel alone (Chloe, 28, has spent the past two New Year’s Eves on her own in Israel and Nicaragua); we’ve moved to foreign cities alone; we happily go to the cinema alone.
Nor am I suggesting that there is any problem with being single. That would be ludicrous and an insult to the many happily unattached men and women with no desire to couple up. But, for us, being single isn’t a choice. We would all like a boyfriend, but, despite being unanimously proactive when it comes to dating, we’ve drawn a blank and can’t work out why.
Since our teenage years, we have shared every aspect of our lives over dinners such as tonight’s. “Any boy news?” someone will ask hopefully, only to be met with rolled eyes and a chorus of exasperated sighs.
There will be the latest hapless dating story: “We arranged to meet at the gig at 9pm. I bought his ticket. He texted me to say he was on his way and then never showed up. I know he’s not dead, because he’s still posting pictures on Instagram.”
Let’s discuss our options. Date older men? Moving cities? Give up and establish an all-female commune? But we never reached a definitive conclusion. Is it us? Is it them? What can we do to get some male pheromones in our lives? Are we alone in despairing that we’ll never meet a kind, clever man who is single and not trying to sleep with every girl within a five-mile radius via Tinder?
Apparently not. According to Jon Birger, a business journalist and the author of Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, it’s no surprise that professional, heterosexual women in their twenties are struggling to find partners: there aren’t enough like-minded men to go around.
“Every western country has between 20% and 40% more women than men in higher education,” he explains from New York. “Even China – where there are 20% more marriage-age men than women overall due to the one-child policy – has 11% more women graduating from university.”
In Britain, the figure is 29%. In 2014, 237,690 women graduated from UK universities compared with 184,130 men. This year, 94,140 more women than men applied to universities. If action isn’t taken to address the growing gender gap then girls born this year will be 75% more likely to study for a degree than their male classmates.
“There’s been a graduate gender imbalance since the 1980s, but my book focuses on millennials because the gap they’re graduating into now is bigger than it’s ever been,” Birger explains.
“As bad as things may be for a single 38-year-old woman in 2016, it’s going to be a bloodbath when today’s single, twentysomething women turn 38.”
The heart of the problem is an increase in what Birger calls “assortative mating” – people choosing partners from the same social and educational background as themselves.
29% more women than men graduate from university: in 2014, 237,690 women graduated from UK universities, compared with 184,130 men
“We’ve all become more rigid about who we want to be with, but the men don’t get penalised because the supply of university-educated women is getting bigger every year. Say you start out with a dating pool that has 140 women for every 100 men. Once 70 of those men get married, the remaining singles become 70 women to 30 men. It’s totally unfair.”
Birger sees a direct link between this imbalance and the way millennial men approach dating: “I doubt they’ve done a head count, but the guys know they’re in high demand. They’re more likely to play the field and act like jerks because they have the leverage. They don’t perceive it as a numbers game, they just think they’re special.”
Dating apps – with their endless, instant supply of possible partners – make it easier than ever for young, single men to keep their options open.
“Dating apps are essentially catalogue shopping for pretty girls and sex,” laughs James, 27, an investment banker who has met 25 women from dating apps over the past six months. “Sometimes the girl says, ‘Shall we see each other exclusively?’ I tell her, ‘I met you on an app and I haven’t deleted the app from my phone so, no, I’m not looking for a girlfriend.’ ”
A relationship is similarly off the table for Harry, a 26-year-old singer. “Occasionally I see a couple in the street and I think that a relationship could be nice. But then I remember that I work five days a week, enjoy going out with my mates every Friday and have an Arsenal season ticket. If you’ve got a girlfriend, you have to see her a lot and I’m just not willing to make that sacrifice.”
Dr Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist and the bestselling author of Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. She blames the media and the ready availability of internet pornography for promoting ideals of masculinity that portray monogamy as restrictive and archaic.
“We teach men that you’re a man if you sleep with three women in one night,” she explains. “Then I get men coming to my clinics who can’t get an erection with their girlfriend because they’ve watched porn since they were 12 years old. We’re conditioning men into rapid sexuality and not teaching them how to relate.
“If you think of commitment as being in prison, then, yes, it’s a horrible word. But if I say it’s the chance to build a relationship that will make you happier, it becomes an opportunity.”
In fact, the women I spoke to had no problem with men not wanting commitment – so long as they were upfront about it. What they did take issue with was being led on. Everyone had a story of finally discovering a wonderful man who seemed to buck the trend. He planned exciting dates and initiated conversations about the future, only to back-pedal furiously when she suggested transitioning from “seeing each other” to an exclusive relationship.
Girls born this year will be 75% more likely to study for a degree than their male classmates
For me, he was a fellow journalist. Chiselled and trilingual – languages have long been the way to my heart – he pursued me with promises of weekends in Paris before becoming suddenly, inexplicably distant. When confronted, he confessed that he was still sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, but didn’t want to be in a relationship with either of us.
“I thought I could have my cake and eat it,” he admitted in a rare moment of truthfulness. “Realistically, I won’t commit to a woman until I get one pregnant.”
For well-travelled Chloe, he was the man she met in Israel last Christmas. After she returned to London, he bombarded her with messages for six months, suggesting they meet in Sri Lanka. When they did, he lost interest. “Suddenly, he was of the opinion, ‘If we meet up again, great. If not, I’m not bothered,’ ” says Chloe. “That’s the tone a lot of guys take. They know that at the flick of an iPhone there’s a whole stream of attractive, available girls. Dating isn’t about meeting someone you like any more – people are just addicted to the endorphin kick of having someone find you attractive.”
The Sex and the City creator, Candace Bushnell, agrees. At 57 she is divorced and dating, and she notes a significant difference between today’s dating culture and that of the 1980s and 1990s, when she was a relationship columnist for the New York Observer. Back then, women encountered the odd emotionally unavailable philanderer, but generally, if a man was going on dates, he was open to the idea of a relationship. No longer.
“Going on Tinder is the opposite of looking for a relationship. Most guys play games on their phone, and dating apps are an extension of that,” Bushnell says. “I can’t believe how many twentysomething guys I’ve matched with on Tinder. I’m so not age-appropriate for them that the idea of a relationship is immediately off the table, but I think that’s why they pick me. I’m not a threat in terms of commitment. These guys aren’t bad people, but they’re attuned to the responsibilities that come with making a commitment and they don’t want that.”
Why, then, do busy, seemingly intelligent men invest months of their lives in quasi-relationships with women they ultimately have no interest in? One friend exchanged messages with a man on a dating app for two months before he told her that he had no intention of ever meeting up.
“I think most people presume it’s about sex, but it isn’t,” says Robbie, 26, who works in sports marketing. “We’re cowards. You meet a girl you’re attracted to and it’s great, but then reality kicks in. As soon as my ex-girlfriend mentioned living together I knew I didn’t want to, but I stayed quiet for months. I knew how she’d react, so not saying anything was a stay of execution.
“Women have a mental timeline of where they should be at a certain age. As a guy, you worry that if you start making promises to a 27-year-old, you’ll be locked into a wedding and babies.”
Herein lies the biggest misconception. Almost unanimously, the single men I spoke to cited a woman’s biological clock as a reason to run scared from relationships. Invest more than a couple of drinks in a woman over the age of 25 and, before you know it, you’ll be driving a Volvo and painting the nursery – that was the general consensus.
Of course, women hoping to have a family are under a biological time pressure that men generally don’t feel. However, if twentysomething men broached the subject of marriage and children with their female counterparts – rather than jumping to panicked conclusions based on GCSE science and Bridget Jones – they might be pleasantly surprised.
“I am not looking for a husband!” says a horrified Amber. “If I started a relationship tomorrow, I wouldn’t be thinking, ‘I need to marry this guy.’ I’m looking for someone to have fun with in the here and now. I’m not thinking about my expiry date.”
Alex, 26, isn’t thinking about children for at least five years. “I’d like to meet the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with, because I know we’re going to have a great time together, but I’m not looking at my watch, getting stressed about it.”
What if she never finds him? “Not having children would upset me more than not having a partner. But I could adopt or I’d just be really self-indulgent and travel loads. I’d make the best of it.”
Is this all the men’s fault? Or do us women have to take some responsibility for the fact we’ve been single for so long? “English girls are pickier than any other nationality,” says Ben, a 29-year-old graphic designer who has slept with 10 women from dating apps over the past nine months. “Girls from other countries will message you straight off the bat, saying, ‘You’ve got amazing eyes,’ but English girls can be really cold. They don’t make it easy for themselves.”
Nor do we make life easy for anyone trying to ask us out. My friends and I know that. We’ve always strived for the highest standards at school and work, and are probably guilty of transferring some of these perfectionist tendencies to our quest for love.
One friend exchanged messages with a man on a dating app for two months before he told her he had no intention of ever meeting up
“Perfectionists and high-achievers can find it particularly hard to find a partner,” says the psychologist Dr Juliette Puig. “The qualities that got them that perfect job and perfect friendship circle can be really challenging when applied to dating.
“Some people are used to having high standards and control over many aspects of their lives, but you can’t control another person, so they sometimes resort to early dismissal: ‘He said this, he did this, he’s out.’ Often it’s about not being too rigid in what you’re looking for.”
Might we be expecting too much? Harriet’s dream man would “definitely read The Economist”, while for Alex, a keen appreciation of Tracey Emin is a prerequisite. “He needs to be passionate in a physical sense, but also in terms of his interests. If I mention a kooky art show I’ve been to and he doesn’t even try to get his head around it, that’s a real turn-off.”
“I wouldn’t settle in my professional life, so why would I settle in my personal one?” Chloe shrugs. “My last boyfriend was so complacent – he lived at home and had done the same job for years. I want a strong-minded man who’s excited about life. I’ve been on my own for so long that if I’m adding someone else into the mix, they need to be brilliant.”
What do my single friends have in common? The majority went to all-girls schools – where they were told to be and do anything they wanted. “Don’t marry the prime minister, be the prime minister,” was a favourite refrain of my headmistress. We definitely didn’t hate men, or feel in any way superior to them, but for 32 weeks of the year we lived in a bubble of female empowerment where they simply didn’t feature.
“My education is partly to do with why I’m single,” says Alex. “We were taught to know ourselves, rather than be blinded by the next doctor or lawyer who came along. I’ve been through a lot in the past seven years and I’m very proud that I’ve done it on my own. When I meet the right man, that’s what he’ll like about me.”
At university, boys trickled into our day-to-day lives but were never a priority. I arrived for my first year determinedly single, having broken up with a lovely boyfriend I’d met a few months earlier at a debating competition (pretty wild, I know).
The relationship hadn’t run its course, but heartache was preferable to the compromises involved in coupledom: weekends spent shuttling between Durham and London when I could have been playing netball and making new friends; comfortable holidays deux rather than character-building solo trips to South America.
In my naive feminist mind, I knew the woman I wanted to be. She was ambitious, fiercely independent and would never prioritise a man over her career or female friends. I didn’t realise that no one was asking me to do so.
The journalist Laurie Penny argued recently in a Valentine’s Day article for the New Statesman, entitled “Maybe you should just be single”, that women in their twenties should value their “financial and emotional independence” over finding a boyfriend. As someone who has been obsessively self-sufficient for the past decade, I’ve come to see that you don’t necessarily have to choose between the two.
“Young women are totally confused,” says Sue Johnson. “They’re fed all this stuff in the media about finding a soulmate, then they’re told they don’t need a man – which is true on some level as they’re no longer dependent on them financially. But feminism isn’t about being so strong that you don’t need anybody. We’re social, bonding animals and strength is recognising that and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another person.”
In many ways it is a brilliant time to be a woman in her twenties but, like men, we flounder occasionally, still trying to find our place in the new gender order and achieve an approach to life where letting our guard down doesn’t equate to sacrificing hard-won independence.
So, the search for clever, kind men continues. If you know any, please get in touch.
Ellie Austin is assistant features editor at Radio Times
A boy’s eye view of the girls’ plight: Joe, 29, a film-maker, has been single for 12 months. Before that, he was in a four-year relationship
Why are these girls single? Because they’re too picky. The numbers are against them in terms of male-to-female ratios, and that’s tough, but they can mitigate it by being more realistic. Ellie and her friends are expecting to meet someone and be swept off their feet, but falling in love as an adult is different. I wasn’t immediately blown away by my last girlfriend, but we were together for four years. It took time, patience and an acceptance that neither person was perfect. If these girls expect to meet a Tom Hiddleston lookalike who is a doctor and an expert in contemporary art on the side, then I’m sorry, they’re going to be disappointed.
Of course, these women have been messed around by some idiot men, but I don’t think men are generally scared of commitment. Ultimately, if a guy likes you – really likes you – he will want to be in a relationship with you. It sounds harsh, but if a guy goes cold after a few dates, it’s not because he’s a monster; he’s just not crazy about you.
Might men be intimidated by the fact that women are so successful and sure of themselves? Yes, quite probably. I also wonder how great gender equality is for relationships. These women are all very accomplished in their own right, but, deep down, I think they still want a man who’s a provider. I don’t think they’d be attracted to someone who wasn’t at least as successful as them. Our traditional gender stereotypes are becoming outdated, but you can’t manipulate raw attraction.
Dating apps make women more obsessive about finding that one person who ticks all of their boxes
I recently met a woman on a dating app who I had an incredible connection with. For a few weeks we had a ball, then she called it off. She said she fancied me and loved spending time together, but that wasn’t “enough”. I was devastated. She’d recently signed up to some dating apps and was overwhelmed by the choice. In a different era, I’m convinced she would have given us a shot, but today’s dating culture has led her to believe she could do better. Do dating apps mean that guys sleep around more? Maybe. But they also make women more obsessive about finding that one person who ticks all of their boxes.
My advice to Ellie and her friends would be to stop obsessing over Mr Right, because he only exists in their heads. Instead, date some people who you have fun with and see what happens. You might end up having a surprisingly good time with Mr Wrong.