If Lena Dunham can get naked on TV, then I publicly can state the following: I am 38 and single. I’d rather be in a relationship, but I’m not.
It’s not like I don’t ever date. But as you get older, there are longer spells in between dates. My perception—and that of my many thirtysomething, unattached girlfriends—is there’s a run on single men our age.
In my twenties, it was easy to meet guys—at work, at a bar. They weren’t always marriage material, but who cared when they were cute, smart and funny? As each relationship or fling flamed out, I never got too discouraged; I knew there were more in the wings.
But into my thirties, I started to feel as if every man who was attractive, intelligent and had a personality was taken, a sentiment echoed by most of my peers.
“Anna” (everyone in this story has asked to be anonymous), also 38 and single, says a lot of men are stalling, avoiding commitment and keeping a few women on the back burner. “I know so many more women [than men] who have their shit together,” she says. So what are these guys waiting for? “I don’t know. I’m not even sure it exists.”
If you think we’re making excuses, journalist Kate Bolick posited the same complaint in her article “All the Single Ladies” in The Atlantic in November 2011. Through research on the changing landscape of education, marriage and employment, she demonstrates that women are gaining on—and sometimes surpassing—men in education and employment; as of 2010, women held 51.4 percent of professional and managerial positions and earned 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Meanwhile, men have been declining in these areas relative to women. Bolick notes that almost three-quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the depths of our recession were lost by men. The result, she writes, is “a new ‘dating gap,’ where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players.”
I have had experience with deadbeats (one guy invited me to a wedding, then couldn’t afford the cab fare to the church) and players (usually guys who evade any sort of meaningful communication outside of a “what are you doing tonight?” text). But I also know it’s reductive to assign men into two categories.
And just like all men can’t be neatly labeled, it’s worth mentioning I don’t fall squarely in the category of “marriage-minded” merely because of my age. While I adore children, I’m not sure I want any of my own. I do want a life partner, but I’m not feeling anxious about my biological clock. That abates some of the pressure I know other women my age feel. It may kick in (possibly too late, I realize), and that’s something I’m prepared to deal with.
So I continue to be hopeful and date, often online, which can feel like a second job: writing an online profile, checking and responding to e-mails, venturing out on 15-degree nights when you’d rather stay home. It’s not like it is in your twenties, when—in big cities, at least—the majority of men around you aren’t married.
Recently, I was trading e-mails with a few guys on OkCupid, including 41-year-old “Nick,” a writer with a quick wit and a nice smile. A week later, we met for drinks at Silver Cloud in Bucktown. Our date was feeling platonic, so I decided to ask him dating questions that had been nagging me. First up, what’s with all the 38-year-old guys seeking women 26 to 33?
Nick acknowledged that, generally speaking, guys do want to date younger women. “It’s a sex thing,” he said. He once went out with a 23-year-old. “We had nothing to talk about,” he admitted, and said of course he’d date someone his own age, but men chase the fantasy when the right woman’s not in front of them.
But Nick also thinks women have it easier. “If you’re at a bar and there are ten guys there, you decide if and who you talk to.” When I said it’s hard to find even a few single guys my age at a bar, he said I should be striking up conversations with men at Whole Foods. I thought that was crap. I’m supposed to walk up to a man and ask him if my melon is ripe? But it made me wonder: Am I doing all I should?
Apparently not, when compared to “Jane,” a 35-year-old single woman active on three dating websites. I’m on only one. “I tell everybody that I am single and I go on blind dates,” Jane says, since that’s how she’s met other boyfriends. While she agreed with me that dating is a second job, she thinks 2013 is her year.
“My New Year’s resolution is to talk to an attractive guy once a week,” she says, and explains that recently, she and her friend even chatted up a married guy at a bar, eventually becoming Facebook friends with him, because he might have single friends. I find this tactic interesting, as I tend to treat married guys as invisible, much like I would a pervert on the El.
Jane has even created a vision board, and though I didn’t ask, I assume there’s a picture of a hot, age-appropriate man pasted somewhere in the center. I’m not one to collage, but I give her credit. I work in advertising for a living. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that when you’re selling something, you need a strategy.
Which reminded me of something: In 2009, I heard a segment on public radio’s This American Life about a group of romantically challenged Harvard physics students who checked the population statistics for Boston to understand why they had a hard time meeting women. After zeroing in on the number of women in Boston in their desired age range who were single and college-educated, and then arbitrarily supposing they’d only be attracted to 20 percent, they had quantified their pool of datable women in Boston to 2,500.
Eager to see how Chicago’s demographics are working for me, I hit up Rob Paral and Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in the statistical study of human populations. His findings: According to 2009–2011 data from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, my pool of datable men in Chicago is 43,439 (ages 35–44, single and college-educated). But if (like the Harvard guys) I’d find only 20 percent attractive, that reduces it to 8,688. In a city of 2.7 million.
And how many women am I competing with? Applying the same criteria, Paral found there are 50,386, which means for every 100 men, there are 116 women. Only a slight imbalance if all of these men are only seeking women their own age. Factor in women ages 25–34 and that’s an additional 89,852 women, which means for every 100 men, there are 323 women. Yes, I could level the playing field and also pursue men 25–34, but I’m not interested in dating down more than five years. I hit it off well with younger guys, but common ground and emotional maturity mean a lot to me in a partner. Plus, down the road, they may decide they want children after it’s too late for me.
So, now what? Are we single ladies supposed to get all Hunger Games on one another? Punch a girl in the ovaries if she’s about to hook the last eligible man? It’d make killer reality TV but, truthfully, there’s a great camaraderie among my single friends. When one of us gets a boyfriend (and it’s happening, in spite of all these stats), the rest of us are happy for her.
So until the future Mr. Ensign enters stage right, I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which includes Internet dating and being as social as possible—though I’m learning to trade my favorite dives for more refined haunts. And I’ve informed my wingwomen we’re getting sauced at the fancy Whole Foods in Lincoln Park and taking target practice in the produce aisle. Now somebody hand me a cucumber.