Aaron Renn’s newsletter The Masculinist takes a grim look at the dynamics of the online-dating world, based on data provided by some of its leading platforms. He’s writing from the male perspective, but there are plenty of depressing observations for the ladies as well, many of which will not be news. In Renn’s telling, the medium of online dating acts to exacerbate the pre-existing advantages of good looks in men and youth in women. His central thesis is that the shift to online dating has made romance into yet another globally commoditized market like anything else you buy online, leading to more inequality, more loss of opportunity for those with less to offer, and more superficial shopping patterns. There is more along the way about race, personality, and perception. While my own instinct on reading these sorts of articles is to immediately be glad I met my wife when we were 17, got married at 23, and stayed married, the origins of couples and families — and the struggles people endure to get there — shapes the world we live in and the world our children face.
One of most interesting bits is a striking graph drawn from a sociology study (with data through 2017) of how couples met, versions of which have been kicking around the web for a while:
A brief word on the methodology: According to the study’s authors, who were updating a study they first conducted in 2009, they are studying opposite-sex couples, defined as “married couples, unmarried couples who have cohabited, and unmarried romantic unions who have never cohabited.” Survey respondents were asked when they met and how, and as many categories as possible were identified, so the cumulative percentage will exceed 100 percent.
As you can see, there is a dramatic shift in the world from 1940 to the 1990s with the growth of college education and women in the workforce, and then a second shift that begins with the arrival of the Internet. In the 1940s, the bulk of couples met through their own communities: family, growing up in school together, friends, neighbors, church. All of those ways of meeting other than through friends began a precipitous decline in the post-war period that has continued down to our own day.
Rising alongside them were in-person adult encounters: college, the workplace, bars, and restaurants. There is a particularly major story about changing social norms embedded in the rise and fall of “met at work.” You can see on the one end the flood tide of women into the workplace, rising dramatically into the 1980s (along with the lengthening of the typical workday in white-collar workplaces), and on the other end, the stiffening of norms against flirtation in the workplace as law and society gradually cracked down on sexual harassment from the 1990s onward. There is a reason why the culture of the 1980s celebrated workplace romance (think of films such as Working Girl) as a hallmark of women making it out of the home and finding love on their own, on their own terms, while bemoaning sexist bosses in films such as 9 to 5. There is also a reason why the culture of the 1990s featured such a schizophrenic reaction to the Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky stories: Many women were putting up with a lot of unwanted attentions from men at work, but also a number of men and women alike were finding mates in the workplace. That has been in sharp decline for the past two decades as it has become increasingly unsafe for men to make their attentions known to female coworkers for fear they might prove unwanted. Equally dramatic, and for some of the same reasons, has been the decline in that period in couples meeting in college (where I met my wife in 1989). There are a lot of different drivers to that; my generation expected it to be common to meet a lifelong mate before entering the workplace, whereas now that is rare — and the workplace is a no-go zone. What to do?
What has arisen in its place, and is now driving out even the intervention of friends, is the starkly Darwinian world of online matchmaking, whose upward trajectory looks like a chart of Amazon’s revenue. It works for some people, but it undoubtedly feeds the sense of alienation and isolation that has been growing on our society in recent decades like mold on old bread. For too many people, the answer now to how we met is “We didn’t.”