Kate Bolick is an attractive, educated and professionally accomplished 39-year-old who despite 20 years of dating and a string of steady relationships has — cue the ominous organ music — never married. In a long (at 12,000 words, very long) article that’s part personal essay, part enfilade of facts, stats and interviews with experts, she tells her story in the Atlantic this month. It doesn’t end happily ever after — at least it hasn’t so far — but this leaves Bolick not so much sad or even angry but surprised by what she’s found: a dating pool of men who increasingly cannot keep up with their female counterparts.
That conclusion, which landed her on the “Today” show and made her the subject of countless blog posts, tweets and newspaper columns (none of which, including this one, have the space to adequately represent the scope of her article), mostly earns Bolick the predictable charges of being a man hater or a casualty of feminism, particularly the kind heralded by ‘70s-era moms who raised their daughters to become, in Gloria Steinem’s words, “the men they wanted to marry.”
I’ve always hated that quote, not least because it assumes all women want to get married in the first place. Bolick, wisely, seems more interested in data than slogans. Citing statistics from another Atlantic story published last year, “The End of Men,” Bolick points out that women earned 60% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2010 and held 51.4% of all managerial and professional jobs. Nearly three-quarters of jobs lost in the recession were held by men. Last year, women constituted most of the American workforce.
Translation: An educated, well-compensated woman over 35 is out of luck in the dating economy. Not just for Darwinian reasons (as fertility decreases, so does attractiveness and therefore “market value”) but for a very new, very unsettling reason: Men traditionally considered marriageable by such women (their wage equals or betters) are rapidly becoming an elite minority.
Of course, at the same time that Bolick’s basic question — Is marriage still a significant benefit to women? — was shorting out buzzometers everywhere, another urgent brouhaha was trending fast: The Occupy Wall Street (and points north, south, east and west) protests. The sprawl of both phenomena is striking: The Bolick crowd is tackling feminism, love, monogamy and the history of matrilineal family systems; the protesters are taking on corporate greed, healthcare deficits, environmental destruction and nuclear proliferation. But both also clearly, unavoidably boil down to this: an economy that’s just not functioning in most people’s interest.
Here’s something worth noting: One of the constituencies of this year’s Arab Spring movement are young men who have their own marriageability problems, because of joblessness and lack of access to education. On our own protest front lines, a heck of a lot of the young men might fit into a similar cohort.
It’s hard not to watch Occupy Everywhere without thinking about Bolick’s article. Sure, the face painters and zombie-costume wearers seem to be getting the most airplay. But look a little closer and you see a lot of ordinary guys whose currency in the world has been pulled out from under them, who might be considered “unmarriageable” by women who’ve found equality just about everywhere except in a partner.
Maybe Bolick and her single friends should trot their Jimmy Choos down to the rallies and take these men out to dinner (OK, not the ones whose hardworking wives wouldn’t appreciate the gesture). As Bolick points out, the women who are coping best with the new order are those most willing to recalibrate their expectations: “Whether it’s women choosing to be with much younger men, or men choosing to be with women more financially successful than they are (or both at once).”
That won’t solve the economic crisis, but at least it’s a start. In the meantime, as someone who remained happily unmarried until the geriatric age of 39 (and, for the record, is also now happily married), let me say this: There are far worse things than being single. For instance, marrying the man you wanted to become rather than becoming who you are.