An article on The Atlantic brought new research on the growth of income inequality to my attention. The article explains that the cause of today’s income disparity between the wealthy and the rest of the country is explained by the plot of the film When Harry Met Sally — or the increasingly common occurrence of marriages containing individuals well-matched on two specific factors: socio-economic status and education level.
The paper with the new research is available from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Over the past five decades, men and women are more likely to wed partners who are in the same socio-economic status group. As more couples fall into this kind of homogeneity, a feedback effect takes place. In fact, society today is more like it has been throughout most of history, where classes determine socialization and procreation, building generational wealth. The culture in twentieth century United States stands out as a contrast to most of Western history because the equal rights movement and other social causes temporarily shifted the country’s consciousness, and disenfranchised communities sought ways to improve their chances of becoming a part of the middle class machine from a societal perspective.
Europeans came to America before this country’s founding for a variety of reasons, but one of these was economic freedom. Although many European countries had made inroads towards economic mobility, Europeans with wealthy parents but no inheritance would get the opportunity to thrive in a new country. And for the most part, this worked out well for them. Many of the descendants of early settlers have held onto generational wealth obtained primarily by being the first Europeans to occupy land on this continent.
This particular American Dream hasn’t worked out as well for the subsequent immigrants to this country, which things getting progressively worse for each successive wave of immigration, but the earlier a family arrived in the United States, the better chance they have of being part of the wealthy class today.
Until this point, the availability of economically-compatible spouses were somewhat limited. People married their neighbors. Parents and community leaders arranged marriages (or just made suggestions) for their children based on compatibility factors that made sense for those families or communities. It was common in this country for a man with a good, upper middle-class job to marry a woman from a poorer family. Or his secretary.
Over the last fifty years, four specific societal changes affected the choices people had in a mate.
1. Socio-economic situations have become more complex.
Upward economic mobility became more of a reality not just for white European male immigrants, but for women and other non-white men. Men and women began working at the same companies, at the same levels. Today’s result of this advancement for women is that we have corporate Vice Presidents who marry other corporate Vice Presidents. We have managers marrying other managers.
And why not? People with similar roles have much in common, making a marriage more social than perhaps has been the traditional case. People with similar roles also have similar independent incomes.
2. Travel is easier and more affordable.
While historically, familial relationships were limited to the confines of a community, distant communities are now closer together. Cars are prevalent, so it doesn’t take long to get from one city to another. Travel by airplane, despite what seems to be an non-stop rise in airfares, is more affordable, and long-distance relationships are possible.
Also aiding long-distance relationships are advancements in communication technologies. While nothing is better than being with your loved one in person, a couple can now stay in virtual constant communication regardless of where in the world they might be.
3. Social acceptance of non-traditional unions is more common.
American society still has a long way to go before racism is no longer a major concern, but there used to be a time in many states during which racial intermarriages were illegal. The Supreme Court rules that no state could instate such a discriminatory law, and this, the eventual social acceptance of such relationships, and other changes in the workforce that gave more opportunities for non-white workers to succeed, increased the pool of potential mates.
And the eventual acceptance of same-sex marriage continues on that path; more and more, people will be able to (legally, with all the benefits thereto, and with societal acceptance) choose to spend their lives with partners with very similar backgrounds, instilling homogeneity for future generations.
4. Everyone has an opportunity to go to college.
For the most part of the last century, society in the United States has been promoting college. Through the GI Bill, easy access to loans for tuition, and employers who value a college degree, more and more citizens of the United States have been attending college. And an increasing proportion of these university students are women.
While it has always been the case that college graduates tend to marry other college graduates, these used to comprise just a small percentage of all relationships. Again, social trends over the past fifty years have changed the landscape. College degrees are much more common and men and women have an easier time finding compatible partners who are also college educated.
These four changes to society in the United States have widened the pool of available partners who are compatible in education and socio-economic status. This compatibility is not a bad thing. If I’m going to share my life with a partner, I would be expect to be able to communicate about issues that are important to me, and for her to be able to express her ideas intelligently — my hope is that she would challenge me intellectually.
Add this into the new American Dream, which seems to be to pursue individual wealth regardless of others, and you have people who seek out partners along compatibility dimensions such as wealth and education. Because of equal opportunity across sex lines, those types of relationships are more available than they were during the period of this country’s history with the most economic mobility, 1960 through 1980.
The promise of equal opportunity in the workforce for women started in the 1960s, but wasn’t realized or culturally significant until the 1980s. The evidence may be in popular films from the 1980s, depicting more women in traditionally male working roles and with higher education, and of course, in When Harry Met Sally.
If you’re born to a poor family today, the biggest likelihood for your future is that you will stay poor. That’s more like most of Western history than it is like the United States that became the major world power in the twentieth century. Working hard, going to college, and entering the middle class is one way to escape the cycle of poverty or near-poverty, but most will fail. The biggest traditional chance of giving your future children a chance for success is to marry someone wealthy, but more and more, the wealthy are finding their own kind.
Do you and your partner have similar education and socieo-economic backgrounds?
If you’re not married and you are looking for a partner, is this part of your considerations?
Updated February 17, 2014 and originally published February 3, 2014.