In contrast, societies where men are in short supply often tend towards permissiveness and lower levels of commitment. The First World War had a seismic impact on romantic and marital behaviour. More than 700,000 British men were killed during World War One, with as many left seriously wounded or incapacitated – and death tolls were proportionally higher on the Continent. According to the 1921 UK census, there were 1,209 single women to every 1,000 men aged between 25 and 29.
New technologies often generate moral panics, and following the War, many blamed jazz music and even the burgeoning automobile for the emergence of the “Flapper” generation and the perceived rise in premarital sex and permissiveness documented in poems like TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Yet a far more likely explanation is simply a good old-fashioned numbers game. The business journalist and author Jon Birger hypothesises that the enormous death toll between 1914 and 1918 created a lopsided dating market which persisted into the “Roaring ‘20s”. The remaining men, responding to their inflated value on the marriage market, ‘shopped around’ and postponed commitment.
Birger believes similar demographic disparities drive contemporary ‘hook-up culture’, particularly on college campuses. Women in the UK are now 35% more likely than men to go to university and the gap is widening each year. In America, too, women outnumber men at most universities, sometimes by ratios of more than 3-1. According to Birger, when men ‘control’ the dating market according to supply and demand, hook-up culture quickly becomes the norm, as single males, like their forebears in the 1920s, play the field and delay marriage.
However, just as broad economic trends continue to shape our fates on the dating market, data and algorithms offer solutions to some of the associated pitfalls. Recent years have seen a surge in online dating and matchmaking apps, led by number-crunchers and maths majors in Silicon Valley. These allow users to bypass many of the traditional obstacles to meeting new people, thereby expanding their own dating personal market.
According to economic theory, increasing the size of the market in this way should improve dating by making successful matches more likely, which is largely borne out in the evidence.
Available survey data suggests that online dating generally leads to ‘better matches’, and lower levels of relationship breakdown. Online and app-based dating carry especial benefits for people whose preferences make discovering partners particularly hard due to social, physical or geographical isolation. One big winner of the app revolution has been same-sex dating, which operates in a smaller pool than heterosexual romance and is also illegal or socially unacceptable in many places around the world.
Yet, as we have seen elsewhere, the skewed gender ratio on many apps can have a destabilising effect on heterosexual dating.
Men, in the main, outnumber women on dating apps (e.g. two-to-one on Tinder). This disparity can in turn trigger a version of the economic effect known as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, where individuals try to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource, yet end up hurting the common good of all individuals in their shared setting.
In heterosexual dating apps, women are in short supply and effectively the “scarce resource”. Female users of apps like Tinder tend to lose patience and interest if bombarded with ‘low-quality’ messages. Since, on apps like Tinder, it costs no money to match with someone, the opportunities for these messages are practically endless.
The app Bumble, set up by one of Tinder’s founding members, has attempted to correct this issue by only allowing women to message first, thus shifting the power balance, lowering the possibility of vast amounts of spam being sent from men and of women abandoning the app in frustration (they hope).
One of the most powerful arguments against the hubris of central planners is the absolute ubiquity of markets, which spring up, unprompted, in all kinds of guises. As Gary Becker knew – and the modern-day dating scene attests – even our personal relationships can’t be divorced from economics and market forces.