Women’s liberation, the educational gap between the genders, and online dating are coming together in these years to create a disruptive change in the conditions for love – a change that will provoke us to a new romantic and erotic taste, new ethics, and perhaps even a politics of love.
Do you also have this girl friend – well educated, attractive, with a good job – who, to your amazement and her own increasingly intense frustration, just can’t seem to get a boyfriend? Or if you are a man, was the time before you found your girlfriend a long chain of short relationships? Do you swipe through Tinder on a daily basis while still holding onto the ideal of eternal love? Does it seem a very big leap for you to replace your two-room at with a suburban house and kids on the garden trampoline? If yes, this isn’t just a personal experience; you are face to face with a sociological fact: The heterosexual love life, where you meet, become lovers, move in together, and form a family, is changing rapidly these years – with great ethical and potentially also economic and political consequences.
“We have gone from the marriage that was good enough to people looking for that special someone; a soulmate,” as Professor of Sociology at New York University, Eric Klinenberg, says to SCENARIO.
“And even if it took more than just snapping your fingers to find a decent spouse, you could find one relatively quickly and easily in your local community. Today, though, people are willing to wait a long time and travel very far to find their soulmate. It is a historically huge cultural shift.”
The most unromantic book on dating
We will come back to Eric Klinenberg and his book from last year, Modern Romance, which he wrote with stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari. Now, meet Jon Birger – New York-based journalist and author of what he calls “the most unromantic book on dating ever written” – Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game. Like most books, it was written on the basis of amazement. He got married and had children, and with his wife he played matchmaker by letting their male and female acquaintances meet. And then they ran out of men, while there still were a number of single women left – increasingly frustrated with not being able to find a boyfriend. He had the same experience in the newsrooms where he worked. The men, who were a minority, were married, while many of the women had a hard time in the dating quest for the one and only. Their dates treated them badly, lovers were unfaithful or – even worse – there wasn’t anybody to go on dates with. At least not any who were as educated and settled in their careers as they themselves were.
All over the western world, Birger saw a noticeable trend: More – increasingly more – women than men took higher education. An OECD report from 2012 – Education Indicators in Focus – shows that the distribution of university degrees is close to 60/40 in favour of women. It’s numbers like these that are central to Birger’s analysis. When women prefer to find partners in the same socioeconomic tier as themselves, there are far fewer men to choose between for the many more women.
“The gender ratio between heterosexual singles influences the odds of finding a lover. It also influences behaviour while getting there,” says Birger.
The explanation for why there are more and more single women, and why the average age for marriage or similar relationships is increasing, has to do with what is known in the United States as hook-up culture – a trend of a lot of short dates that have more to do with having sex than with forming relationships.
“A lot of social science shows that when there is a surplus of men, the culture is more romantic and monogamous, with men courting women; but when there are more women, the dating culture becomes more promiscuous, less monogamous, more open,” Birger states.
In Date-onomics he explores several dating environments, particularly at American colleges. Because students typically live on the same campus the four years they study, the relationship between dating behaviour and gender distribution becomes particularly clear.
“I took a closer look at Caltech (California institute of Technology; ed.), where there are three men per two women and where dating is about forming lasting relationships. I was there after Valentine’s Day, and they told me how the men make handcrafted Valentine cards for the women and that they get up early on Valentine’s Day to make pancakes for the women. As you may guess, this isn’t exactly how things are done at places like New York University, which has a surplus of women. There is a much clearer hook-up culture there,” says Birger.
Musical chairs – or, why all the good men are taken
This sounds like a lot of fun – at least if you are a single man with a Master’s degree under your belt or in the making – and Birger even refers to studies that show that people have better sex when the gender ratio tilts towards more women than men. Yet there is also a dark side, he says. “It is a clear trend that when there is a surplus of women, men will treat women more like sex objects.”
This trend has been the basis for heated debate in the US, where more conservative voices criticise dating apps like Tinder for promoting a hard, sexualised dating culture that hurts the formation of relationships. In Birger’s opinion, it is more likely the other way around. Tinder has become so successful because there is already a skewed proportion of women and men that makes the culture more promiscuous. In his analysis, this is also why we see more and more single women and why the average age of marriage or long-term relationships is increasing.
“It’s like musical chairs,” Birger says. “Imagine that we start out with 30 men and 40 women. When 20 of the women have married 20 of the men, the ratio is down to 10 men to 20 women, meaning a drop from a 75 percent chance of finding a partner to 50 percent. And once five more of the women marry five more men, the ratio is suddenly 5-15, or 1 chance in 3 of finding a man. For women, this is a brutal and unfair numbers game. The longer they wait or don’t meet anyone, the smaller the chances are that they will ever succeed. This is what we are seeing now.”
Back with Eric Klinenberg at NYU, the extensive and long- term dating culture, we are told, has more to do with young people today no longer needing to marry to achieve independence from their parents.
“If you were unmarried 60 years ago, you typically stayed at home with your parents and hence were subject to their rules. So, strong inducements existed for young people to get married quickly. This has changed significantly, not least for women, who today no longer need a man to liberate them from home. Hence, a whole new epoch has entered people’s lives; something social scientists call the extended youth,” Klinenberg says.
Gamification of dating
In Modern Romance, he and Aziz Ansari – who at the moment can be seen in the acclaimed Netflix series Master of None, which unfolds many of the themes from Modern Romance – throw themselves at focus group studies from around the world to discover how people in their extended youth handle the new opportunities for love. Here, once again, internet dating and Tinder come up.
“This is the second thing that has changed,” Klinenberg goes on. Where before, you looked for partners in your own environment and generally knew or knew about each other, we to- day seek partners among total strangers. Klinenberg emphasises that dating apps like Tinder aren’t the primary reason for the changed culture, but rather they express, exploit and accelerate changes that began many years ago.
“In the United States, online dating has become the primary method to meet a potential partner, and it is only becoming more popular because Tinder and other swipe apps have destigmatised online dating for young people; gamificated it, so to speak. So, when previously you only went to online dating sites if you were serious about seeking a relationship, you now date for all sorts of reasons, from finding new friends to getting laid by someone to finding a soulmate. It is a game changer.”
Even so, the idea that the digital generations are like fish in new waters doesn’t quite hold up. According to Klinenberg, frustration, confusion and uncertainty go hand in hand with all the novel, exciting, and playful things.
“We have thousands of years of experience as a species in meeting up, having sex, and starting families, but we only have a few years of experience in this new terrain and even less with the new technologies that we carry with us everywhere. Hence, we are really bad at it. We are living in an age of confusion and stress.”
Living it out or surviving
Why do so many people really hold onto the ideal of eternal love? There are good evolutionary reasons for that, says psychologist Asger Neumann, who besides his practice, where he does couples therapy and individual therapy, also teaches at Aarhus University in Denmark.
“It has been expedient for the survival of people and of our species. Whoever has shown commitment to a mate and made sure the offspring has survived – that gene has turned out to be the fittest to survive,” Neumann says.
“To ensure that, nature has invented this mechanism we call love, and this is why we can find committed long-term relationships in almost all cultures.”
In Neumann’s analysis, which draws on evolutionary psychology, the new thing is that with the invention and democratisation of contraception, we have separated sex and procreation. This has shifted the weight between two types of strategies for the survival of your genes: a long- term strategy, which is a matter of finding the partner you expect to be a good parent; and a short-term strategy, which for men is a matter of spreading your seed to as many women as possible, and for women – when they ovulate – to get pregnant as soon as possible. Where sex today only through active choice results in children, it has not least for men become possible to remain in the behaviour of the short-term strategy. However, we also see that the transition to the long-term relationship is full of doubt, and it quickly becomes asymmetrical, where one wants the other more than the other way around.
The politics of love
However, it isn’t just on the individual level that the new conditions for love result in stress. It is also the case among politicians and economists in the west, particularly in Europe. The postponement of long-term relationships, coupled with a single culture that is growing stronger, is an important reason why birth rates are declining everywhere in the developed world. Demographers and economists calculate that in a given population, women need to give birth to an average of 2.1 children to maintain the population. In the EU region however, the number lies at 1.5 children per women, according to Eurostat. This should be seen in the light of numbers from the world bank, which show that in 1960, typically between 2.5 and 2.8 children were born per woman in western European countries. In raw numbers, again according to Eurostat, this means that in 2014, more than 2.5 million fewer children were born than 50 years ago.
“This is one of the most serious economic challenges in the EU region,” says Torben M. Andersen, PhD and Professor of Economics at Aarhus University.
“When the size of the population declines, it has consequences for nations with relatively well-developed welfare systems, as is the case in Europe. In a welfare state, those who work support those who don’t or can’t. As long as the population was growing, as it was when the systems were established, you could keep improving welfare, since the group contributing to the system grew in relation to those drawing on the system. When the movement is in the other direction, we suddenly need to make cuts.”
The question is if we are going to see politics of love that will increase the inducement to having children. Here, Torben M. Andersen points out that welfare systems with good maternity and childcare schemes seem to counteract declining birth rates.
“Both schemes make it easier to combine family life with labour market participation. This is also why fertility rates in the Nordic countries haven’t declined as much as in e.g. Germany (about 1.8 vs. 1.4; ed.). In this respect you could argue that the Nordic welfare models have conducted politics of love of a sort – or at least more family-friendly politics.”
Back in New York City, Jon Birger is hopeful when looking at the future trends. He is the Adam Smith of the love market – over time, supply and demand will move towards equilibrium, he thinks. Or to put it another way: The romantic and erotic taste of women will change in the future.
“Declining fertility is only a legitimate concern if you believe it is a permanent situation that 30 percent of university-educated hetero women never get married. However, I don’t believe that. We will come to see women get together with less-educated men. We actually see this here in the United States among Afro- Americans, where the gender gap in education actually is deeper than average,” says Birger.
Yet he also points to politics of love – since the education gap between men and women can be reduced if boys start school later than girls.
“According to neuroscience, girls’ brains mature faster than boys’. Hence, when it comes to schoolwork, girls will typically do their homework, behave, and listen. This is why they are better prepared for university studies. However, studies show that boys that start a year later than girls tend to close the gap to the girls, and more of them go to university. I really hope there will be greater awareness about this.”
Eric Klinenberg is less sure that we are in a transition period between two epochs of relationships. We are living in an age of experimentation, and one thing is certain: the single culture, which Klinenberg has examined in his 2012 book Going Solo, is a trend that has come to stay.
“It is surprisingly attractive to live on your own, and there are several reasons why. One of them is that people who live alone typically are more social than married couples; i.e., spend more time with friends and neighbours, and they typically participate far more in volunteer organisations. The point is that being single and living on your own isn’t the same as being isolated or lonely,” Klinenberg concludes.
Asger Neumann looks to the future of the trend of separating sex and pregnancy. “We will see that romantic relationships and sex will become further separated. The classical, long-term relationship will persist, but fewer than 50 years ago and fewer than today will follow that path. Instead, we will see permanent singles with many different partners through their lives. We will also see more polyamorous people with more lovers at once, and there will be people who will have a marriage-like or very intimate relationship with a good friend or girlfriend, but have other partners for sex,” Neumann predicts.
“One of the consequences of individualisation and self-actualisation is that we will relate more to the person than to the gender. We will see more playing with gender identities – more hybrids.”
However, it will also create new vulnerability among children, says Neumann. “We already see that now with very difficult divorce cases in the state administration. It is a growing problem. And yes, we see the number of children decline. However, at the same time we see a growth in the number of single women who raise children on their own and assume sole parenthood. We will certainly see more of that in the future. I also believe that what we see already, that a man on the sideline has some degree of father role for these children, will become a stronger trend,” Neumann concludes. “We will be provoked to deal with new ethics and new laws here”.