the mating game

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In the 1990 movie Pretty Woman , a penniless prostitute and a corporate mogul live happily ever after when they realize that true love knows no social status. It is a resplendent thought, but the demographic truth is that such rags-to-riches relationships are extraordinarily rare.

No matter how we try to romanticize the power of a love that knows no boundaries, America's marriage trends clearly show that we are, and probably always will be, a society segregated by social class. While it is true that the number of interracial and interfaith marriages has grown over the past few decades — certainly pointing to our collective acceptance of diversity — such unions still constitute a small share of total U.S. nuptials. (See sidebar, page 35.) Interracial marriages, for instance, make up just 3 percent of all unions, and even those, say researchers, are often between members of the same social class. And though the Internet has promised an opportunity for Americans from all walks of life to connect, most sociologists put little faith in its ability to level the playing field of our largely class-based marital bliss. The fact remains that Americans tend to marry people like themselves, especially when it comes to social rank. This tendency, known to sociologists as “homogamy� or “assortative mating,� has become even more pronounced in the past 20 to 30 years, and many agree that it is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.

When sociologists study inequalities in American life, they tend to focus on three major areas: race, gender and class, notes Pamela Smock, a demographer and associate director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. In recent decades, affirmative action policies, increased equality in the workplace and more diversified schools have all helped to narrow racial and gender gaps. However, what hasn't changed is the overarching outline of social class. Says Smock: “The biggest open secret in America is that we do live in a very classist society. This is being played out quite clearly in the marriage market, and in how we choose our mates.�

Measuring social class is not easy. When determining an individual's “class,� some sociologists look at income or occupation, some examine educational attainment and others create models that include a complex mixture of all these variables. But when looking at social class homogamy within marriages, sociologists tend to agree that education is the most reliable measure of a couple's social status, since it is less likely to change over time than their income, for example. So if a couple marries immediately after finishing graduate school, and neither partner has been working, they may have a very low level of income. Yet because of their educational achievement, the couple has a high earnings potential and thus would be considered by researchers to be of a higher class than a couple made up of two high school dropouts, even if both couples had the same income. Therefore, while it is by no means a perfect measurement, many sociologists use education as their indicator of social status when studying trends in union formation.

Brandeis University sociologist Ellen Rosen analyzed data from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey (GSS) for American Demographics and found that while today there is some intermarriage at the middle of the educational spectrum, there is extreme polarization at the highest and lowest ends. For instance, in 2000, 94 percent of married high school dropouts were wed to someone who was either a high school dropout themselves or had only a high school diploma, and 69 percent of married adults with advanced degrees were wed to someone with at least a bachelor's degree. Less than 1 percent of the most highly educated Americans had a spouse who did not complete high school.

This trend toward educational homogamy, or the tendency for men and women with similar educational achievement to marry each other, is not new, but it has seen slight increases over the past few decades. This rise attests to the continual presence of social barriers, rather than the breakdown of such barriers, as has been dramatized in Hollywood's fantasies. For example, in 2000, 58 percent of married bachelor's degree holders were wed to someone with at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 42 percent in 1976. Similarly, only 32 percent of college grads married someone with a high school diploma or less in 2000, compared with 56 percent who “married down� in 1976.

This growth in educational homogamy has everything to do with women's increased educational attainment and their mass entrée into the work force since the 1970s, researchers say. Prior to the 1970s, men tended to “marry down,� in terms of the education of their spouses, in part because of supply and demand: There were fewer women who met or surpassed men's own level of education.

Today, however, the number of women who receive a bachelor's or master's degree each year far surpasses the number of men who do so, and that trend is expected to continue, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The math is simple: More educated women in the marriage market has and will continue to better the odds of more matches between highly educated people. Similarly, since there are fewer men and women today who either did not complete or only completed high school, and since such prospects tend to be less desirable to those on the higher learning rungs, less educated people tend to stick together.

Another variable contributing to swelling rates of educational homogamy is proximity. Pre-1970s, men looked for their brides literally in their own backyards, often marrying the proverbial “girl next door,� say sociologists. Today, with more women in the work force and in colleges, matches are more often made at work or school than at home.

According to an exclusive study conducted by Harris Interactive for American Demographics in February 2001, almost 4 in 10 singles (36 percent) said they meet the people they date at work, and more than a quarter (27 percent) said they meet at school. Significantly fewer singles meet in and around their neighborhoods: Just 17 percent said they find potential dates at places of worship; 13 percent meet people waiting in line at the grocery store, cleaners or bank, and 6 percent swap numbers at the gym. Considering that people tend to work and attend school with people of similar social stature, there is more opportunity today for birds of a feather to fall in love.

The other part of the mating equation has to do with attitudinal shifts in America. The way men perceive the educational status of their female bedfellows has changed. Women with brains were not always the hottest commodity on the marriage market, notes UCLA sociology professor Robert Mare, who has conducted extensive studies of educational assortative mating over time. Rather, Mare says, men typically looked for such characteristics as attractiveness, the ability to have children and the willingness to provide domestic service for the family.

“Historically, that put highly educated women in a worse place in the marriage market,� Mare says. “But today, it is not only socially acceptable for a woman to be educated, but often expected, and many men now find such women highly desirable.�

In today's economy, where many families require two incomes to survive, men, especially those with higher education, are looking for a partner with similar education and thus similar earnings potential, Mare adds.

The increased financial burden of marriage is also part of the reason that highly educated Americans have consistently had greater marriage rates than less educated people. It is also why marriage has become more accessible to the higher classes over the years, says Susan Brown, assistant professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. According to 2000 GSS data, 56 percent of adults with advanced degrees are married, compared with 35 percent of those with less than a high school education. “Women without a high level of education today are not as attractive as mates, because they no longer fit what men are looking for — someone who can make an economic contribution to the family,� she says. “And the less educated men are not attractive to women, because they too do not have the money to support a marriage.� This is part of the reason there are so many cases of cohabitation and single motherhood among less educated adults, says Brown.

Yet despite the mathematical odds involved in marriage market economics, one of the most prominent reasons we choose our partners from our own social class is because, quite frankly, we like it that way. “It's not about snobbery or about being closed-minded, it's simply that we feel more comfortable when we are around people who are like us,� says Glenn Stanton, a social research analyst and author of Why Marriage Matters (Pinon Press, 1997). “Most people are looking for a partner who shares similar interests and views of the world,� he says. “We are more likely to find those similar interests and views within our socioeconomic group than outside of it.�

The Internet, promising the opportunity for single Americans to meet and interact with people of all classes, may help to bridge and blur some of the class barriers — but few are betting on it. In fact, most sociologists agree that the Internet only enhances people's tendency to be even more specific in their criteria for marriage. “The Internet may help facilitate more interactions across geographic boundaries,� says sociology professor Zhenchao Qian of Ohio State University. “But ultimately, people are using the Internet as a tool to find people just like themselves or better.�

That theory holds true, at least by what Match.com, an Internet dating Web site with more than 3 million members that was launched in 1995, has found — especially among the most highly educated women.

According to a study of 728,000 Match.com members, conducted exclusively for American Demographics, only a quarter (24 percent) of women with graduate degrees and 20 percent of those with a PhD say they are willing to date a man with “any� level of education. And of those women who specify a particular educational criterion, 64 percent of those who hold graduate degrees and 68 percent of those with a PhD say they are looking for a man with at least a graduate degree.

Interestingly, while less educated women are more likely to expand their criteria (62 percent of high school grads are willing to date someone of “any� education level), many of them still cut themselves off from mates of higher status. Of female high school grads who state an educational preference, 34 percent say they would prefer to date someone with just a high school education, while only 4 percent say they'd be interested in dating someone who holds a doctorate.

“It is sort of like the saying ‘water finds its own level,’� says Trish McDermott, vice president of romance at Match.com. “The fact that people are looking for someone like themselves is a self-selection process. Someone with a PhD may know from past encounters that dating someone with less education doesn't work because of a gap in life experience.�

But, she warns, being too limiting in one's criteria for a mate can backfire. McDermott tells the tale of one Match.com member who met her husband through one of the site's chat rooms. The two hit it off immediately, found they had a great deal in common and got married. But the computer system had never set them up; instead, it was a chance meeting on a message board that brought them together. As it turned out, the reason they were never matched was because he lived five miles outside her defined distance criteria.

“She says she may have missed the man of her dreams by being too picky and constrictive,� says McDermott. “She e-mailed her story to us to remind others not to limit their opportunities for finding Mr. Right.�

Whether a mile of distance, an inch of height or a level of education, says McDermott, “There's a great romantic tragedy waiting to happen to those who are too picky. No data or demographic parameters can specify the people with whom you'll have chemistry. Sometimes that has to be left to fate and a little bit of magic.�

Maybe Hollywood is on to something after all.

Breaking the Rules of Engagement

While they still make up a small percentage of all marriages in the U.S., the number of interracial and interfaith marriages is on the rise.

Talk about a mixed marriage. She's Filipino and Jewish; he's part Iranian, part Italian and an atheist with Muslim and Roman Catholic parents. “Yes, our wedding mirrored that of a U.N. meeting,� says Marina Nicola, 27, a technology director from Las Vegas. But she and her husband Joseph, also 27, wouldn't dream of having it any other way.

While the majority of Americans tend to marry those with whom they are most demographically similar, an increasing number of couples in the U.S. are breaking the rules of engagement and entering into interracial and interfaith coupledom. Just 35 years ago it was not just uncommon for a person to marry someone of another race, it was actually illegal in many states. It wasn't until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court abolished all anti-miscegenation laws nationwide. Since then, the number of interracial marriages has increased exponentially, growing to 1.5 million in 2000, from 321,000 in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And these numbers do not include marriages between people of different ethnic groups, such as between Hispanic and non-Hispanic men and women. Given the size of the Hispanic population and the forecast for growth in the coming decades, interethnic marriages are expected to increase as well. According to an analysis of 1998 Current Population Survey data by American Demographics' contributing editor William H. Frey, a demographer with the University of Michigan, about 1 in 6 Hispanics, and a third of those under the age of 35, were in a mixed marriage. (See “Mixed Doubles,� November 1999.)

Interfaith marriages are also on the rise, due in part to the increased secularism of Americans, says Alan Booth, a distinguished professor of sociology and human development at Penn State University. �Religion doesn't matter as much to people as it did in generations past, so it is understandable that more people have stopped using ‘similar religion’ as an important criterion in finding a mate,� he says. In fact, the number of adults who do not identify with a particular religion has more than doubled, to 29 million in 2001, from 14 million in 1990, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, a poll of 50,281 households conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The study found that 22 percent of married or domestic partner couples report they are involved in a religiously diverse union.

But even if Marina and Joseph Nicola's mixed blessing falls into the minority of American marriages, the newlyweds believe their diverse backgrounds are all the more reason to celebrate. �We enjoy our differences because we feel they add to us as a couple,� says Marina. “Now we have a motley of cultures and religions to teach our children.�

— RG

OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS

Eighty-eight percent of single Asian women say that they are willing to date outside their racial group, compared with just 49 percent of single white women who say the same.

PERCENT OF SINGLE AMERICAN MATCH.COM MEMBERS* WHO SAY THEY ARE WILLING TO DATE SOMEONE OUTSIDE THEIR RACE, ETHNICITY OR RELIGION:

Men Women
Protestant 88% 80%
Catholic 86% 79%
Other Christian 85% 76%
Jewish 81% 72%
Hindu 76% 58%
Mormon 77% 70%
Muslim 77% 51%
Buddhist 92% 93%
Other religion 93% 88%
Agnostic 96% 94%
Atheist 92% 86%
White 74% 49%
Black 88% 62%
Asian 80% 88%
Hispanic 93% 87%
Indian 89% 82%
Pacific Islander 97% 94%
Middle Eastern 89% 76%
Native American 92% 89%
*Includes more than 725,000 single adults in the U.S. who created profiles on Internet dating site Match.com during the first quarter of 2002. Source: Match.com

FOR RICHER, FOR SMARTER

Just 20 percent of single women with PhDs are willing to date a man who has “any� education level, compared with 62 percent of female high school grads.

PERCENT OF SINGLE AMERICAN MATCH.COM MEMBERS* OF THE FOLLOWING EDUCATIONAL LEVELS WHO ARE WILLING TO DATE SOMEONE WITH “ANY� LEVEL OF EDUCATION:

Men Women
High school grad 72% 62%
Some college 71% 55%
Associate degree 69% 48%
Bachelor's degree 59% 32%
Graduate degree 53% 24%
PhD 49% 20%

PERCENT OF SINGLE AMERICAN MATCH.COM MEMBERS* OF THE FOLLOWING INCOME LEVELS WHO ARE WILLING TO DATE SOMEONE WITH “ANY� INCOME:

Men Women
Less than $25k 88% 79%
$25k to $35k 85% 60%
$35k to $50k 83% 44%
$50k to $75k 81% 33%
$75k to $100k 80% 29%
$100k to $150k 80% 28%
$150k or more 84% 38%
*Includes more than 725,000 single adults in the U.S. who created profiles on Internet dating site Match.com during the first quarter of 2002. Source: Match.com

BUT IS HE CUTE?

Fully 90 percent of the most highly educated singles say that finding a partner who is intelligent is extremely or very important, compared with just 66 percent of those with a high school education or less who say the same.

PERCENT OF SINGLE AMERICANS WHO SAY THAT THE FOLLOWING CHARACTERISTICS ARE “EXTREMELY� OR “VERY IMPORTANT� TO THEM WHEN LOOKING FOR A MATE:

Total High school or less Some college College grad+
Intelligent 79% 66% 86% 90%
Funny 70% 65% 73% 75%
Attractive 34% 32% 36% 37%
Athletic 12% 10% 12% 16%
Wealthy 6% 8% 4% 5%
Source: American Demographics/Harris Interactive, February 2001

SMART CHOICES

Marriage rates have declined dramatically since the 1970s, but Americans who are highly educated are even more likely than their less educated counterparts to be married today.

PERCENT OF AMERICAN ADULTS IN THE FOLLOWING EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT CATEGORIES WHO ARE MARRIED:

Less than high school High school grad Junior college degree Bachelor's degree Advanced degree
2000 35% 45% 48% 49% 56%
1996 38% 48% 47% 53% 56%
1991 48% 53% 60% 55% 64%
1988 45% 56% 40% 60% 58%
1984 50% 59% 43% 60% 62%
1980 57% 62% 64% 63% 59%
1976 61% 68% * 64% 75%
1972 71% 72% * 70% 81%
*Sample size too small
Source: General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago; calculations by Ellen Rosen, Brandeis University
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