If Piketty is Right – What Does That Mean For Dating?

I assume by now you have read the buzz about Thomas Piketty’s recent book (for example here or here). There has been some debate about his results, but that seems to be settled. His main scary prediction is that most developed nations seem to be headed for a very unequal world, with few people owning most of the wealth and passing it on through inheritance, and most people owning relatively little and not having the chance to amass wealth through their own work.

Now, what does this mean for dating? In his book, Piketty painted a return to the (economic) world of Jane Austen. We won’t see a complete return to Jane Austen in the dating world, because gender roles have changed, and clear-cut male/female roles have blurred since then. But let’s go through the possible outcomes for an average person vs. a rich person, not distinguishing different impacts for men and women for now.

Average wo/man

You will face a world where your chance of getting rich through marrying the right person (a rich heir/ess) are much higher than today, and of getting rich by getting employed and working hard are lower than today. You still have a chance of getting rich through entrepreneurship, but the odds are probably not better than today.

In practice, this means that the skill of detecting rich heirs and infiltrating their networks successfully are now more highly valued; and the skills needed to succeed academically and professionally decline in relative value. At the same time, wealth of a partner may become more important relative to his/her other traits.

As a matter of case study, we could compare the dating arrangements in countries that currently have a fairly equal wealth distribution (say Northern Europe) with those that don’t (some Latin American countries). Let me confess that I, an average woman, have dated in both contexts. And what I have seen largely shows that rational human beings adapt to the distribution of wealth. ‘Marrying well’, ‘eligible bachelor’, ‘a catch’ – are all acceptable expressions to use in the unequal, but not so much in the more equal world. Family and friends share knowledge on wealth-related eligibility of young men, and this is clearly a highly ranked trait in the less equal world. Networking is proactive, and relationships are cultivated with people of influence (Austen would write ‘consequence’.) Academic and professional advancement is still fostered and valued, but also because it allows mixing in the right circles. In the more equal world, such considerations would be more criticized and sometimes consciously ruled out.

This is also reflected in the content of popular TV. Hypergamy (women marrying up) is a big theme in most Telenovelas, still prevalent in Sex and the City but not so much in Lindenstrasse or let alone Wallander. In the literature, Saint-Paul skilfully shows that hypergamy (women marrying up) increases as inequality increases.

Rich wo/man

You will likely face a longer queue of suitors (suitresses?) than nowadays. And many in that queue will have a (legitimate and rational) economic motivation as part of the package. If you want to sort out the suitor that is free of such concerns, you may need a more elaborate selection mechanism than nowadays. Think of Portia, the rich heiress in the ‘Merchant of Venice’. The correct suitor chose the leaden box over the gold and silver ones. Or of Turandot, who wanted to single out the smartest by a tough riddle. And then correctly married a refugee. Fighting through a hedge was good enough for Sleeping Beauty (and that example doesn’t really count because she married a social equal). From the male perspective, Cinderella‘s shoe as a selection mechanism may be hard to replicate. Natural beauty, on the other hand, seems to rain equally on all social classes. And some talents can be tested (Rapunzel‘s singing voice). Effectively, all hypergamous women and men in the fairy tales had to prove their true character through a complex action. Which is why some hard work will still pay off.



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