By the late 1990s, the single girl in the city who couldn’t find love became a cultural phenomena. Bridget Jones and Sex in the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw channelled the frustrations felt by women in metro areas all over the world because many lived in cities short on men. I recall endless complaints that skewed male-to-female ratios—with way more women than men—made it impossible for women to meet partners and left them with little dating market power. Nowadays it seems like you hear that a bit less. Women still complain about dating, but there isn’t as much of a male scarcity problem because in the last few decades gender ratios in big cities have become a little more equal.
In 1990, there were 88.5 men for every 100 women in New York. By 2015, it was 91.
In 2000 London there were 95.5 men for every 100 women, by 2015 it was nearly at parity.
Economics can explain how the gender rations became unbalanced (and it also suggests that one culprit often blamed for the skew—that there were more gay men than gay women in big cities, worsening the odds for straight women—was a red herring). Before the advent of the tech economy, women of all skill levels were drawn to the city, which only held similar appeal for high-skilled men. Jobs in big cities usually pay more, especially in high-skill service jobs like banking or management. But twenty or 30 years ago cities were also especially attractive to low and middle skilled women because retail, clerical, and administrative jobs were plentiful and paid more. The better jobs for middle- and low-skill men—in manufacturing, trucking, construction, and in extractive industries like oil and mining—were often not in cities.
Another possible reason for skewed gender ratios is a provocative argument made by Columbia economist Lena Edlund. She argued women, seeking wealthy partners, would move to cities hoping to meet one. Landing a rich man appealed to both low and high-skill women while—Edlund speculated—men did not care so much about education and skills in their partners. Meanwhile lower skilled men would stay away from cities’s competitive dating market since the women in cities only wanted higher earners.
But several things have changed in the last few decades. Cities have become more appealing for high-skill workers, both male and female. In a speech at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting last year, MIT economist David Autor showed how much the labor market has changed in cities. First, if you have skills or education, it is becoming more critical to live in a city. They are where the best jobs are and they offer the increasingly important opportunity to be part of a professional network of other skilled workers. Before men with a college degree might make more money with a city job, but he could still have a good career in a more rural community. Now that is less true and college graduates of both genders, are more likely to live in cities because they offer much better opportunities.
Meanwhile, cities are less compelling for lower skilled women. There are fewer jobs for them, especially the administrative and clerical jobs which have nearly disappeared, and the cost of living has soared. As for Edlund’s hypothesis, social norms have also changed. Evidence suggests assortative mating is more common, meaning men with money and education now tend to marry women who have those qualities too. The causality of assortative mating is unclear, however, and an educated men might marry a woman with a similar background either because it’s his preference, or because the city in which he lives has become so economically homogenous he doesn’t meet anyone else.
This all adds up to more economic inequality, and in cities the pool of women shrunk relative to men. If these trends continue, and cities become even more full of upwardly mobile elites, they may soon reach gender parity. Women in cities will still find reasons to complain about their dating prospects, but a man shortage won’t be one of their excuses.