Jon Birger, journalist and author of the newly published book, Make Your Move: The New Science of Dating and Why Women Are in Charge, says he never intended to become a dating expert. While working as a writer for Money and Fortune for a decade, Birger noticed that “most of the men [he] worked with were happily coupled whereas most of the women were unhappily single.” His curiosity led him to write a bestselling book, Date-onomics, which outlined a growing trend of more college-educated women than college-educated men in the dating market. Date-onomicsreceived high praise and national attention, but Birger admits it lacked a “big, bold new dating strategy.”
“Make Your Move picks up where Date-onomics left off—offering women bold new ideas on how to beat the odds in a dating market that’s horribly unfair to educated women,” Birger explains in the preface to his new book. It explores how cultural influences like Me-Too and online dating have changed the dating scene—and namely, how women can have more control in the dating market than they may realize. It also offers a refreshing perspective to dating that might just empower women who feel like they have made every other part of their life except their dating life work for them.
I recently interviewed Birger about Make Your Move, inviting him to share more about the book and its reception (this interview has been edited for clarity).
McDonnell: In your book, you assert that men like confident women while noting, of course, that there may be some men and women for whom this approach won't work. Do you have any insight into how to identify men for whom this strategy will work and men for whom it might be a turnoff?
Birger: Would you mind if I pushed back against the question? One of my goals with Make Your Move is to help women avoid the mistakes that men often make. Men fear rejection and awkwardness just as much as women do. As a result, a man will often ask out the woman he thinks is most likely to say yes as opposed to the one he actually likes best. It’s also why a guy may find it easier to try out a line with a complete stranger on Tinder than ask out a woman he already knows and likes from the real world.
My advice to women: Don’t do what guys do. Don’t overthink. Don’t start worrying whether the guy you’ve always liked from work, from church, from the dog park, etc. will become less interested in you the moment you show interest in him. Trust me, that’s unlikely. The secret about men is that men like women who like them.
McDonnell: For many women, online dating has become a way of "doing something" to help move their dating life forward—in short, a way to cast her net wide and increase the odds of finding a man. According to your strategies, dating offline does not limit a woman's options for dating. Could you talk a little about the wisdom and pitfalls of the theory of "casting your net wide" in dating?
Birger: Question is, where is all that casting-of-wide-nets getting you? According to CBS Marketwatch, singles under age 30 are now spending 20 hours a week on the dating apps—and this doesn’t even include time spent on actual dates. And despite all this time invested in online dating, there’s zero evidence dating is any easier now than it was before the apps. Quite the opposite.
According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 55% of women say dating has gotten harder over the past decade, 53% consider online dating to be unsafe, and 19% of women say they’ve been threatened with physical violence while on the apps. As if that weren’t bad enough, research also shows that relationships begun online are more likely to fail than those that start the old-fashioned ways. A study by Aditi Paul, a professor at Pace University in New York, found that couples who first meet in the real world are twice as likely to marry as those who meet online.
Another study, this one authored by Stanford University professor Michael Rosenfeld, found that the one-year breakup rate for couples who met online is 16%—versus 9% for couples who met through friends and family, 8% who met as neighbors, 6% who met as co-workers, and 1% who met at church.
I recently gave a talk at Rollins College on this topic. Rollins offers graduating seniors a “Life Launch” class that covers everything from personal finance to careers to relationships. (Random aside: This is a great idea, something more colleges should emulate.) My friend Jana Mathews is an English professor at Rollins, and she happens to be teaching a Life Launch class this semester [and] asked me to talk to the class via Zoom about online dating.
Towards the end of the class, one of the students said she understood my concerns about online dating but wanted to know how the heck she’s supposed to meet someone if not through the apps? So, I posed my own question to her and the rest of the class: How many of you know someone single from the real world whom you’ve ever wondered about dating?
Thirty kids in the class—all 30 hands went up. (I ask this question a lot, and 70% of the time the answer is yes.) My message was simple: Why would you start from zero with a complete stranger on a dating app when there’s already someone you like from the real world whom you would like to date?
McDonnell: To follow up on that, you don’t outright dismiss online dating but aside from some niche categories (like Farmersonly.com), you’re skeptical about online dating as a top strategy for finding a spouse today. Can you explain why?
Birger: A big problem with online dating that I address in the book is that the business goals of dating-app operators are not at all aligned with the romantic goals of most dating-app users. Dating apps do not get rich off your happily-ever-afters. Their business models revolve around growing membership revenues by attracting new customers and by retaining old ones. A lot of apps like Tinder make money off advertising, too. So, every time a Match or Tinder member gets married and stops using the apps, that’s one fewer paying customer.
Think I’m being too cynical? Well, take a look at the 2019 annual report of Match Group, the parent company of Match, Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish. The following is a list of words that do not appear even once in Match Group’s annual report: married, marriage, wedding, couple, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, husband, and wife.
Tinder, Match, and OkCupid do not want to get you off the market. They want to transform you into lifelong shoppers. Match Group admits as much in its annual report, boasting that “successful experiences ... drive repeat usage.” Translation: Start dating someone terrific on Tinder, and you’ll keep returning to the app to find someone even more terrific.
"Tinder, Match, and OkCupid do not want to get you off the market. They want to transform you into lifelong shoppers."
McDonnell: You detail how in your 20s, the odds of finding a man are statistically better because you can still advance in your career, and a woman's fertility is strongest then. Some might point out that our brains and identities are still forming then, making partner selection more challenging. And certainly, many divorced women might tell you that marrying too young at least contributed to their marriage failing. What would you say in response?
Birger: Finding the right life partner is challenging at any age. But if the argument is that it’s easier for women to find a partner at 36 than it is at 26, let’s just say I could introduce you to many women in their 30s and 40s who would disagree passionately with that thesis.
Relationships are not fine wines. People do not become more compatible with age. Nor do singles become more open-minded about potential partners as they age. In Make Your Move, I discuss two studies out of Australia, which found that the reason older singles struggle to settle down is they become choosier and less open-minded. The studies found that the more accustomed we are to certain ways of living and thinking, the harder it is to find a partner who will fit neatly into our lives.
McDonnell: In the final chapters of Make Your Move, you suggest women eschew their expectations that a man is as educated as she is and also think outside the norms of proposals by asking a man to marry her if he won't ask her. Would it be fair to say that your overall suggestion is that women worry less about what society or others might say about her relationship and focus more on what she truly desires and how a man and her relationship are fulfilling those desires?
Birger: Don’t get me wrong. It’s not intended as some blanket criticism of women for being too picky when it comes to education levels. Men are actually more picky than women. According to the latest census data, women are more likely to be married to lesser-educated men than men are to lesser educated women.
I just think it’s in everybody’s interest to be more open-minded, and, as you said, focus on what’s actually best for you and not on what everybody else claims is best. I do not believe that a college degree makes someone a better husband or a better wife. I also think there are real advantages to dating men from the blue-collar world. For starters, a fireman and electrician are probably not saddled with $50,000 in student loan debt, and few things can pressure a young marriage more than excessive debt. Something else to keep in mind: a guy with a 9 to 5 job is going to have more time for the kids than a corporate lawyer who’s always working late and traveling for work.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you it’s really challenging for two people with high-powered careers to raise a family together. My wife and I used to have a daily negotiation about who had to be home by 6:30 pm to relieve the nanny, and those negotiations were sometimes very tense.
As for proposals, I do not believe there’s anything wrong with a woman proposing to her boyfriend. Based on all the fun girl-proposes-to-guy videos I’ve been seeing on social media, I get the sense that more and more Millennials feel the same way. That said, the chapter in Make Your Move that deals with women proposing addresses a very specific problem—what I dubbed "the reluctant groom problem." We all know these guys. They've been with their girlfriends for years. They’re too happy with the status quo. Their girlfriends want to get married, but the men seem to be in no rush.
What should women do about it? In my first book Date-onomics, I argued that women should give men a marriage ultimatum. I now believe this was the wrong advice. Even if the marriage ultimatum does achieve the intended goal, it’s not an ideal way to launch a life together…You’ll live in fear of the day he says those dreaded words—“I didn’t even want to get married, you made me!”
This is why I believe asking him to marry you is a far better option than giving him an ultimatum. A marriage proposal is a question, not a demand. You’re not threatening to leave him. You’re telling him you want to spend the rest of your life with him. What guy wouldn’t be touched to hear that?
And if he’s not touched? Well, at least you know he’s not the right guy for you, and you won’t be wasting another year on a guy who can’t commit.
Meg T. McDonnell is Editor in Chief of Verily Magazine.