Dating in a Downturn

By Reihan Salam

In yesterday's Washington Post, Tara Bahrampour filed a dispatch on dating in an economic downturn.

From investment bankers to real estate developers to construction workers, no job means no buying rounds of $15 martinis for a pretty woman and her girlfriends. No hosting parties in the bachelor loft. And often, no idea how to present one's new self on the dating market.

"It's been incredibly stressful for me," said Neil Welsh, 27, the guy in the suit, who until last year was marketing director for a booming real estate company. "I was so used to using my financial situation to leverage my dating."

Like so many Americans, Welsh is now going through the painful process of deleveraging. One wonders if Welsh should, along with other men in dire dating straits, be nationalized. The feds would assemble a crack team of cut-rate stylists -- staffers and producers laid off from the late and lamented Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, perhaps -- to separate Welsh from his "toxic assets," which would then be aggregated in a single "cad bank" who could then be dispatched to enemy nations to pester and bore and otherwise displease women. I fear that the retaliation would be swift and severe: various Axis of Evil lotharios, armed with copies of Neil Strauss's The Game, would be sent to wreak havoc in our own discotheques, ending nightlife as we know it.

Both articles suggest that the dating landscape in big American cities remains curiously retrograde, with men serving first and foremost as providers. To some extent, this must reflect the fact that women remain clustered in less remunerative professions. In highly-educated circles, for example, young women are overrepresented in media and, as Laura Holson observed in the Times, auction houses.

Art professionals said that Ivy Leaguers with master's degrees typically earn $19,000 for a junior position to $50,000 for a midlevel specialist at an auction house, perhaps a fifth of what peers make working in law or banking.

Yet art professionals travel in the same social circles as women and men in law and banking, and the art professional dating a banker is a longstanding cliché. David Brooks described this phenomenon memorably in an essay on "New-Class Nuptials."

We can break this elite down into two large classes: predators and nurturers. Predators are the lawyers, traders, marketers--the folks who deal with money or who spend their professional lives negotiating or competing or otherwise being tough and screwing others. Nurturers tend to be liberal-arts majors. They become academics, foundation officials, writers, and artists--the people who deal with information and ideas or who spend their time cooperating with others or facilitating something.

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Some 34 percent of the cases are mixed marriages, in which a predator marries a nurturer. In this group the predator is almost always the groom. For example, Patrick Kaye, who graduated from Duke and received an MBA from the University of Chicago, is a financial consultant with CFX Inc. He is marrying Lori McKenna, who received a master's degree in social work from Columbia and now teaches fourth grade at the Authors' Workshop School, an alternative public school in the Bronx. One wonders how such interfaith marriages work out.

But of course this is the classical scenario, at least in part, of marriage as a production partnership. The predator-nurturer union conforms to our understanding of assortative mating -- same level of education, similar households and sensibilities, etc. -- yet there is a division of labor when it comes to dealing with the market.

Last year, the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote an excellent summary of some of their recent work on the marriage marketplace for Cato Unbound. Their central argument is that marriage is becoming a consumption partnership rather than a production partnership.

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let's be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities -- activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives "hedonic marriage."

It's hard to see how an economic downturn, even an enduring downturn, will reverse this powerful historical tendency. At the same time, a climate of economic unease will surely have some impact. Will couples become less likely to divorce? Will employable schlubs become more attractive dating prospects? Will unattached Americans lose weight and make fewer terrible decisions as they consume less in the way of alcoholic beverages? And will live music venues suffer?

In a sense, there are all trivial possibilities. The real issue is: will an economic downturn break the back of the regime in which women are expected to take, and are socialized into, the role of the provided-for party? Given the fact that women's rates of educational attainment are surpassing that of men, and the fact that the downturn will likely accelerate the decline of a number of male-dominated professions -- construction, finance, etc. -- will we see a sharp rise in the economic power of women that will lead to a corresponding change in the sexual marketplace?

Among African Americans, the erosion of male economic power under the pressures of high incarceration rates, deindustrialization, and persistent segregation has led to sharp reductions in marriage rates. My sense is that something similar will _not_ happen to the nonblack population as a whole, as incarceration rates play a uniquely corrosive role. A broader erosion of male economic power won't literally remove men from the marriage pool; rather, it will make them somewhat less attractive partners. Or so the theory goes.

Men would do well to work on some of their weaknesses. For example, men are said to be far worse than women at raising children, even when they specialize in the task. Thanks to Baumol's cost disease, there will always be work in the caring professions -- men would do well to keep this in mind, and to focus on building their skills as nurturers.

Or unemployable men could choose to organize themselves in roving bands of vagabond land-pirates that would roam across the countryside in search of canned food and adventure.

This is going to get ugly, people.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/02/dating-in-a-downturn/1037/