Most explanations for the rise of hookup culture focus on, well, culture—the steady ascent of social liberalism since the 1960s, especially among the upper classes, and the decline of traditional norms surrounding courtship and dating.
Mixed in with this cultural story, however, is a more straightforward demographic one. According to the writer Jon Birger, one reason a certain slice of today’s young people—well-off college graduates in urban centers—is having so much casual sex is that there is shortage of men among their ranks. The female-heavy gender ratio among the yuppie elite makes it easier for men to find sexual partners, and thus less likely to take the time and effort to court them. Birger wrote in Thursday’s Washington Post:
In 2012, 34 percent more women than men graduated from American colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education expects this gap to reach 47 percent by 2023. The imbalance has spilled over into the post-college dating pool. According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are now 5.5 million college-educated women in the U.S. between the ages of 22 and 29 vs. only 4.1 million such men. In other words, the dating pool for straight, millennial, college graduates now has four women for every three men. No wonder some men are in no rush to settle down and more women are giving up on what used to be called “playing hard to get.”
These demographics represent the true dating apocalypse, as stacks of social science show how dating and mating behavior is influenced by prevailing sex ratios. When there are plenty of marriageable men, dating culture emphasizes courtship and romance, and men generally must earn more in order to attract a wife. But when gender ratios skew toward women, as they do today among college grads, the whole dating culture becomes more sexualized.
Of course, men remain overrepresented at the highest echelons of American society—the U.S. Congress, the Fortune 500 executive suites, the mastheads of major newspapers. But as Hanna Rosin argued in her blockbuster “End of Men” article (and book), young men are, on the whole, falling behind compared to their female peers—earning fewer college degrees, fewer graduate degrees, and, in a growing number of cities, earning less money. There are a variety of reasons for this—some of them cultural, others economic (Rosin speculates that “a postindustrial society is simply better suited to women”)—but regardless of the cause, the increasingly skewed gender ratio is clearly one reason why, as Birger says, “Manhattan’s hetero, college-grad, under-30 dating pool” is essentially “a sexual playground for men.”
In other words, the fortunes of both genders in the sexual and economic realms are tied together. The transition to a post-industrial economy has generally been kinder to women than men from an economic perspective. However, this female-friendly economic landscape also seems to have contributed—in some spaces—to the rise of a no-strings-attached sexual culture that is, on the whole, more suited to male than to female preferences.
Of course, demography is not destiny: gender relations are shaped by culture as well, and millennials could come up with new norms to regulate the modern sexual landscape if they decide that the status quo is in need of a correction (and based on Vanity Fair’s recent dispatch from the world of Tinder, it seems that a correction wouldn’t hurt). We’re not sure what these new norms would look like, exactly, but a good place to start would be to take on the whole system of elite cultural segregation that leads modern college graduates to only date within their social class.