Introduction: Before and beyond Man Drought
In late 1989 I had an idea for a research report. My idea was to publish a document that ranked Australia’s 800 local government areas by the amount they had either gained or lost population over the previous 12 months. Sounds boring, I know, but it was actually a fascinating document. I had prepared a draft of how I thought the report might look and had practised my pitch for some weeks. The managing partner of the consulting firm I was then working for supported the idea and a quirky document known as Population Growth Ranking in Australia was subsequently launched in November 1989. We had a public relations firm manage the launch. A press release was prepared; the PR people schooled me in how to speak to the media; and an ‘event’ was organised with journalists from The Australian and other newspapers. We also invited the Australian Bureau of Statistics to an official handing over of a complimentary copy of my report. On the day of the launch I remember feeling physically ill driving to work: ‘What had I done? What if it flops? Life would be so much simpler if I hadn’t pushed this idea.’ When I arrived at work the PR people rang to say that Channel 9 and ABC TV were planning to cover the event. The launch went better than I could have hoped for and, to my surprise, I found the media were genuinely interested in what I had to say. It wasn’t a hard story to sell. The report was covered by all the major newspapers. Radio across Australia picked it up, as did the Sunday papers a few days later. It was a resounding success both from a PR perspective and commercially since we sold copies of the report to business.
Fast forward to late 2007 and I am sitting in a meeting room if the office of publisher Hardie Grant in Melbourne’s trendy Prahran. I am discussing the content and title of my third book, which I want to name Man Drought. While pitching my title and content, my mind flicks back to the events of late 1989: ‘How on earth did I get from there to here? What if it flops? Why don’t I just leave it at two books and retire to Noosa?’ Oddly enough I still don’t know why. In fact I have been asked many times over the last two decades why I continue to talk and write ‘with such enthusiasm’ about social and cultural change in Australia and now overseas. I was once taken aside by the person to whom I reported (in the mid-1990s) and quietly advised that ‘Bernard, you really should let go of the demographics thing. It’ll never get you anywhere.’ Two years earlier I was advised by a public relations expert that I was already ‘hopelessly over-exposed’ and that I should stop taking media calls. I politely listened to but rejected both sets of advice and interest in social and cultural change was to take me nowhere, then so be it. I was happy doing what I was doing and, more importantly, I found it interesting. The same goes for the subject of this book, Man Drought.
Contrary to popular belief I didn’t coin the terms ‘seachange’ or ‘treechange’, but I did popularise the lifestyles these terms described in The Big Shift (2001) and The Big Picture (2006). However, the term ‘man drought’ is wholly mine even though the concept it describes is not mine. The Big Shift placed me on the Australian corporate speaking circuit where I spoke to, and continue to speak to, business about demographic issues. In order to remain relevant to the audience I am always careful to notice which topics draw positive responses. Like the process of Darwinian evolution, all I did was continually dump the bits that didn’t connect and expand upon the bits that the audience seemed to like. Over successive presentations it became apparent that the audience was responding best to issues based around generations (especially problems associated with managing Generation Y) and to relationships. And in the matter of relationships, the specific point that the audience engages with is the reason why young people are postponing commitments to marriage. There are, of course, any number of business themes that spring from such discussions: the recruitment and retention of labour, the pressing of the baby boomer generation towards retirement, and the increased spending capacity of single 20-somethings.
But the largely corporate audience pressed for explanations of the trends that were driving the figures I was citing. I talked about the reasons why the average age of Australian women at their first marriage had shifted from the early 20s in the 1970s to the late 20s today. I explained that this was due to a shift in the priorities of young people who now pursue tertiary education, travel and career development before contemplating the long-term commitment of marriage. These explanations were generally accepted but were challenged by women in the audience who argued that another reason why women had delayed marriage was because they couldn’t find a suitable partner: ‘Bernard, you’re a demographer. How many single men are there?’
Over the last six years I have completed more than 800 speaking engagements with audiences ranging from 12 to more than 1,000 people. These are my very own focus groups that test and push my interpretations and research. I responded to the enquiry about the difference between the number of men and the number of women with new research and articles. In the second edition of The Big Shift, I identified the bachelor hot spots of Sydney and Melbourne, based on the results of the 2001 census. In The Big Picture, I took this concept further with the invention of the oh-so-politically incorrect Fella Filter, which concluded that the largest pool of single rich young men was to be found among this nation’s accountants. I update both the bachelor hot spots and the Fella Filter for the results of the 2006 census in Man Drought. (Ladies, I have one word to say to you: electricians.)
But it was still not enough. The media as well as audiences, both popular and corporate, loved the concept of the man drought. Did it exist? Is it getting worse? And ‘what is the government doing about it?’ This enquiry led me to develop a new concept especially for this book. I call it the Dater Based—a kind of ‘ready reckoner’ for love. I have conducted research on the probability of finding a single partner of either gender in five age-based submarkets: the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. (I’m sorry, 70-somethings, I have assumed that you are not as interested in finding a partner as the younger age groups. And, to be fair, you have had at least 50 years in the game to zero-in on your quarry.) But here’s the thing. I haven’t just done this analysis for Australia as a whole, and neither have I done this just for the capital cities—I have done this for every town, city and village on the Australian continent. No, I don’t think you understand what I am saying: I mean every town with a population of 200 or more. The Dater Base is arranged alphabetically by state so that you can check your odds for love in your town and in neighbouring towns. If you are not satisfied with the odds in your community, you can up and off to someplace where you are likely to be better appreciated. Or, more correctly, where there’s an absence of competition. If you are in the market for love then why put yourself in a geography where the odds are slim?
The man drought issue is, frankly, a lot of fun and it is equally embraced by men and women. Women like the idea of scientifically scanning the continent for single men; men like the idea that their stocks are raised. The response to this type of material is usually a mixture of incredulity that someone would actually conduct such an analysis (such as identifying single hot spots) and intense interest in the results. I have found that Australians want to know where their suburb ranks in any national ranking, whether it is on the basis of population growth or, as in this case, whether it contains an oversupply of singles. But there is also the argument to explain the interest in this material. Modern society has created new concepts to facilitate the necessary process of courtship such as speed and online dating where the purpose is to canvass potential partners. This process was once completed by the ‘old time dance’ where you got to meet and closely interact with eligible partners. With the demise of the old time dance we have had to develop new protocols; cyber hook-ups are one such response. But so too is the notion of a geo-demographic market analysis, which is a technique used by business to target customers. The customer in this case is a group of singles of a specific age and of a specific gender. The Dater Base allows you to strategically place your product (i.e.: ‘gorgeous you’) in the market where there is likely to be the most demand. It’s just that no-one has done this before on a national scale and for a range of age-based submarkets. But perhaps this is the way of the future.
I can foresee an online and interactive ‘heat map’ linked perhaps to something like Google Maps, which shows hot spots of singles in specific age groups. Notionally you could cross-tabulate the Dater Base data with other social filters, such as income and religion. In other words, find me the tope ten towns in Australia where there is the highest ratio (to single women) of single men aged 25-34 who are single, Catholic and who earn more than $80,000 per year. Not politically correct, but its is doable. We have the technology. Indeed, I think we will be dating by geography within five years. I think within 10 years this type of interactive targeting of potential partners could well be influencing migration flows, even if only at the margins. If we are developing a generation of single women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are interested in new relationship, then they might well be prepared to make a decision to relocate. Companionship is a fundamental human need and it could be a motivating force to move for love.
But this book is about more than the man drought. It is about the social, cultural and generational issues of our time. Work, life, relationships and the future are all tackled using the most recent data available. I have drawn on the articles and columns that I have published previously for man of the perspectives on society, work, generations and lifestyle, and the material is reconsidered and updated where appropriate to reflect new data. In this respect the main data source for Man Drought is the results of the 2006 census, although the interpretation is anchored in my analyses of Australian censuses extending back to 1976. Man Drought and Other Social Issues of the New Century is intended to be both a fun and an interesting read. I trust that you will enjoy it.