Power Couples

Town and Country

I am sitting on an old style white chalked brick veranda with a sweeping view of expansive forests and rolling hills. The woodlands cover about five times the area of the settlements in their midst. I grew up here, so although I cannot see the detail of the boscage from where I sit, I know it to harbor fir, spruce, white oak, maple, beeches and birches. On a warm humid day with wind you can smell the spruce. And with the hindsight of economic studies, I recognize the region to host a wood cluster, from forestry along the value chain of industrial and fine carpentry and about any wood product a house may need. Some of the unpretentious medium sized manufacturers are world market leaders for a random product, like a kind of wood siding, or window caulking. Social networks in the small towns are dense, it is easy to know everyone living in the region, at least a little.

When I left this peaceful place for the first time to live in a big city, one of the things that struck me was the anonymity that reigns once you hit the million person mark. Every day you meet people and families that your parents or other kin did not know before. You have to actively build up a stock of knowledge about them, and several people may not have ‘a reputation’ of some sort because the turnover of interactions is so fast and fluid.
At the same time, the amount of opportunities and choice are wonderful. In the city I moved to, you had a bus for every destination you wanted to get to, a course for any subject you wanted to learn. Out of the 6m inhabitants, you had a pool of at least 1m you could interact with and recruit friends from. It was easy to match preferences, from classical music over poetry to spiritual brand. Sports, music and any other hobby could be practiced at near olympic standards. (And the city we are talking about is Bogota, not Boston. In the 1990s. Just for the record.)

The variety of jobs people did was diverse too. In addition to teachers and doctors, I met salesmen, bankers, engineers, painters, entrepreneurs in retail, textile manufacturing, forwarding and furniture design, employees and managers of multinationals. I could make out a couple of clusters touching the city: the beverage industry, furniture and jewelry design, pharma and cosmetics. Professional activities mingled and overlapped and moving from one to another was a more obvious and more frequent choice than in my original forestial dwelling.

Love in the City

Which surroundings are best for your dating? It depends. As people couple up, they think about compatibility. This includes natural affinity, values and preferences, but it also includes very practical matters. Such as, will both partners work, and where will they work. The industrially more diverse metropolitan environment is likely to hold more options for either half of the couple. If both partners want to work, they will be more able to do that in the city rather than in the country. They are also more likely to find a better job match in the city. I.e. the more demanding and peculiar they are about what they want to do, the more they will benefit from the better odds in the city of actually finding it. In principle.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn mined valuable data from the US and corroborated this story in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (Nov 2000). Between 1940 and 1990, the college educated drifted increasingly to cities, and the biggest driver of this drift was the emergence of Dual Earner couples. By far. Husband AND wife started to work, and career minded people increasingly mated with career minded people. (As for why this suddenly happened, see my previous post Opposites Distract.)
This does not mean there are no power couples in the countryside, but if you look closely you will realize they are far fewer. And mostly covering the essential services: medicine, teaching, pharmacy, religion. Unless both partners happen to specialize in the particular local industry.

The emergence of dual earners is a sign of greater equality in couples. But the process of their concentration in cities helps create spaces of two speeds. By attracting qualified people more easily, cities will thrive more. While the countryside suffers brain drain. Over time, town and country may drift apart in productivity and wealth.

Digital Desegregation

However, let’s not forget that this is 2016. The spatial segregation I describe above applies to jobs that are geographically bound, that need a specific place of work and personal presence. This requirement is fading in many industries. Digital jobs like programmer and web designer can be done from any place with an internet connection, and so can many back- and sometimes front office jobs in finance, medicine and retail. Presence jobs in fields as diverse as diplomacy, engineering and science have phases that can be covered effectively and (more) efficiently through telework.

And this is why I can sit on this white veranda and enjoy the clean air and the view of the forests in the evening sun. My blog will soon be posted to the internet, visible in town and country alike. And my man is sitting next door and writing his own.

The Growth Mindset for Relationships

These days, The Growth Mindset is all the rage as a recipe for success, and for raising successful children. What does it mean?

A Growth Mindset, as discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, is the inner belief that intelligence and talents can grow by effort. A Growth mindset lived out in practice means attributing successes and failures to one’s actions and effort rather than one’s fixed abilities. The opposite would be a fixed mindset.  In education, it means praising children for effort rather than ability such as smartness. A child that is praised for effort will invest in effort. A child that is praised for smartness will stagnate and rely on existing abilities only.

What use is this for relationships? Well, I would like to think that a Growth mindset can be applied to about everything. For example, to the extent to which partners are well suited to each other. A fixed mindset would take this as given, a  growth mindset would believe that a couple can be well matched today and better matched tomorrow. Personal affinity can grow. So can closeness.

On a sidebar, shhh, it can be a good way to influence your spouse. Praising his or her efforts…

For now, this is all theory. I challenge economists and other empirical researchers to test the effect of a growth mindset on relationships. Let me know what you found.

 

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Love Advice from A Beautiful Mind – 5 Rational Dating Strategies

Rest In Peace, John Nash, hero of the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and of many an economics student’s a-ha experiences, who died end of last month. Nash received the economics Nobel Prize in 1994 for his findings in game theory. Game theory, which studies interaction and negotiation, is one of the best fields within economics to consult for dating. I thought, within the wealth of Nash’s publications, his paper on “Two-person Cooperative Games” sounded about right for our theme; and indeed it offers a wealth of lessons from both its assumptions and conclusions. While his assumption that people are rational gave me pause, it actually turns out very useful if you wish to err on the side of caution in your strategies.

But let’s begin. Here are 5 essential lessons from Nash’s work for daters.

  1. Make sure you can talk honestly with your date about everything of importance to you. If you want to cooperate at all, if you want to negotiate a good time together and maybe make some agreements, it is indispensable that the communication is open and honest. Otherwise, your agreements will be incomplete, or shaky, i.e. unreliable.
  2. It is important that you can make agreements that work for both. It almost goes without saying, but after all I hear and see happening to many friends that are dating, I am not sure we can take this one for granted. Nash himself felt he needed to point it out as a key assumption before modeling cooperative games. You need to be able to agree on something, so that both of you understand what is meant by the agreement, and understand it in the same way. You also need to able to comply with and fulfil any agreements made. Given that we are talking dating, these agreements can range from the light (like, agreeing on a time to meet to go to the cinema) to the serious (agreeing to go exclusive, or, eventually, marry…). The ability to fulfil agreements implies:
  3. None of you should have outside commitments that interfere with the relationship. Again, it should go without saying, but I am writing up some rational strategies here, based on a level-headed rational economist’s work. And from that perspective, anything can happen. Better check that your date does not come with baggage none of you is able to deal with. Neither should you. Incompatible outside commitments include, for example: being married, having another exclusive dating relationship, or having existing financial or time commitments that leave no money or no time worth mentioning for a new relationship.
  4. Don’t take altruism for granted. It is safer to assume that your counterpart will go as far as he/she can without losing you. Better assume this first and assess any degree of altruism well before agreeing to, like, go steady. (Hint: you want a lot of altruism, while being mindful that all that looks too good to be true probably is.)
  5. You may need an accountability framework. It is great if you can just blindly trust yourself and each other. But this is neither granted nor, possibly, as frequent as we’d like it to be. Nash suggests ‘something like an umpire’ to enforce agreements. Now, as this can prove complicated in dating, what about the following proxies: (i) a joint network of friends that knows or gets to know both of you well, and with whom you are willing to share where you stand dating wise; and (ii) for the younger or the more conservative among us: parents who are kept abreast of essential agreements. The accountability thing is naturally a small circle affair; I don’t advise publishing on facebook. It also should not be something that locks you into a relationship, but rather a trusted group that is in the know but otherwise neutral.

If this sounds too businesslike for love, ask yourself when you last held someone to these standards? If anything, your dating life deserves much more.

All this with the grain of salt that we are sometimes too irrational to apply the rationally obvious. But try and let me know how it goes!

 

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

There Is Just No Man!

I don’t know about you, but I have just met one beautiful and accomplished single woman too many. There are three, no, wait, four, acquaintances on the top of my head, spanning the twenties to the forties, who are stunningly gorgeous, pleasant characters, academic and professional high achievers – and single. And it’s not that they want to be; they just happen to be single. They would love a man that is a good match for them, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone eligible around.

What is happening here? Well, Your Economist has three theses on what’s going on. And three antidotes.

  1. Don’t be too modest. Many beautiful high achievers, I am sure, have been told from an early age to be humble and self-effacing. To counteract the stunner effect with an overdose of modesty, so their classmates and relatives can bear the sight and sound of them. That trick may have worked for social integration, but it is a killer on the dating market. Robust evidence shows that popular and outgoing girls are asked out the most. So, darling: get yourself on that pedestal. Be the one to announce the student union activity, the new task force at work, or the new charity project at church. You want to be that girl behind the mic that has all the eyes and ears on it for a moment.
  2. Cast your net widely. If you are ‘rare’ on any trait (rare beauty, rare intelligence, rarely sporty, rare height…) whoever matches you will be equally ‘rare’. If there are not enough eligible people where you roam, roam in other places: go online, visit that aunt on the other coast, let your friends set you up. Let go of the thought that the internet and blind dates are for losers. They are not. They are for choosers.
  3. Make. Time. If you live a lifestyle that only works for a childless single, then that’s what you’ll end up being. If you work endless hours and weekends; if your scarce leisure time is planned out without flexibility, then where will a partner and maybe a family fit in? When will your radar be relaxed and clean enough to register Mr. or Mrs. Right, and recognize them as such?

No guarantees. But these three potions should let an eligible man or two appear.

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

World Women’s Day: 5 Things That Happen When Women Have the Upper Hand In Dating

How can we find out what happens when women have the upper hand in dating? Does it ever happen? And what if? – One situation where women certainly have bargaining power is when men outnumber women. A high ratio of men to women means men compete for women and women can choose.

There are several situations where we find a high gender ratio: some countries (last week we discussed China), some immigrant communities, social groups and others.  Economists have studied several of these and have found 5 outcomes in the relationship world when women have the upper hand.

  1. There are more marriages. Groups where men outnumber women see their marriage rates go up, compared to groups with even gender ratios.
  2. Men earn more. As men have to make an effort to gain an edge over potential competitors for women, one area they excel in is income.
  3. Women tend to work less. Overall, fewer women choose to work outside the home. This suggests that, at least in the communities studied, many women had the latent wish to be homemakers.
  4. Couples earn more. Women, who choose to work, earn more on average than working women in gender-even societies. Combined with point 3, this means that women won’t get up for less than a certain salary any more.
  5. Children born in this environment are better off. After all the above, it’s an empirical fact that in societies where men compete for women, parents of young children earn more. Children grow up in wealthier households than in societies where women have less bargaining power.

In other words, based on robust evidence: bargaining power for women is a pretty good thing, for about everyone.

Why the Rise of Women Means They Marry Later

Today The Economist discusses the conflicting views on marriage between younger and older Chinese generations. Younger women in particular appear to receive increasing pressure from their families to marry and marry young, while the women themselves would prefer to wait (and be choosier). The trend goes hand in hand with rising empowerment and better career prospects for women.

What’s happening? Three things are at play here (and were missed by The Economist.)

#1 Marriage is no longer an economic necessity for women. With women earning their own living, marriage becomes a nice-to-have, from formerly a must-have.  In this situation, not only is the urgency gone, but different factors govern women’s choices. This is the situation of the young women. While the older generation may still perceive a world of must-have marriages.

#2 Professional women have other things to do. As I pointed out here, many professional, attractive, intelligent women are single at a marry-able age, and those who marry, marry later than the population average. Science says they also have better things to do than the population average. If a date competes with work that is fulfilling, bodes success and a higher income – then the date better be at least as fulfilling, easy-to-present-to-others, and liquid. Of course work and relationships fulfill different needs – but they also compete for the same, scarce resource: time. Professional women have less time and higher demands for relationships, given their alternative options. Both together are likely to keep them single.

#3 In China in particular, women wait because they can. Already in the 1990s, scientists reported skewed sex ratios at birth in China. Now, the gap between the genders is a sizeable ‘gulf’.  In this situation, with more men competing for fewer women, the gentle gender determines the rule of the game. And that likely involves waiting for their best bet. On their terms.

Are You The Odd Woman (or Man) Out? – 5 Things to Get You Into The Game

Clara is a beautiful woman of 38 years, well above average in looks, intelligence and success. With her golden brown hair and small round nose she looks kind of seasonal now – a bit angelic. Still, she is without a partner and in her social circles, feels like the odd woman out. Basically all men her age are partnered and the very few, who are not, objectively do not meet Clara’s attractiveness on any scale.  It feels like a matching game has been played and she was left out.

If Clara looks around her workplace and friends she will see that there is indeed a surplus of single women in her age range. (She works in a prestigious NGO.) This of course puts her at a disadvantage: if she has to compete with women for fewer available men, she will have to trade below par, or, in plain terms, lower her expectations below what she could get in a more gender balanced environment.

Therefore recommendation number 1 for Clara:

  1. Meet more people. Widen your circle of friends: you can re-discover a forgotten hobby, learn a sport you always wanted to – or start any new activity you are interested in to meet new people who are likely to become friends. More precisely:
  2. Seek out activities where the opposite gender is numerous. So, as a woman check out sports, outdoors, computer related hobbies and about everything that involves speed: car racing, speed boats and space tourism. (Examples courtesy of my husband.) As a man, seek out literature, the arts, yoga, zumba, prancercise and philanthropy. For example. Biking and running groups should work for both genders. And if you are really serious about settling down in the near future:
  3. Mind your values. In addition to the activities that just widen your circle, make sure to include some that foster values that are dear to you. Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples should have activities for singles. Causes like the environment, fair trade, mentoring of at risk youth can also help find and bond with kindred spirits.
  4. Focus on the essential. Arm yourself with a checklist of values and characteristics your partner would need to embody. I recommend between 3 and 8 – neither too few nor too many. You need to keep a mental note of these criteria with you at all times. People that don’t meet the list are out and have no claim on your (dating-) attention and time.
  5. Your dating objective first. If you are past 35 and unmatched, odds are that you gave generously of your time and attention to others, based on their need; maybe your family of origin, your work, or friends you felt needed you. These are all worthy claimants, but it’s time to re-focus on your own objectives. Your time and attention are first of all your own and you can employ them where you feel they best help you. (In other words: the earlier you learn to say No, the earlier you will say Yes to the right person.)