Royal Weddings – And Assortative Mating – Increase Inequality


We were all half expecting the Independent to run with “Harold Wales married some American bird” as their headline upon this wedding matter. Instead they’ve treated us to something upon how assortative mating leads to increased inequality. Either and both stories are true of course, but it’s the second one that we should perhaps pay more attention to. For it’s good and useful evidence that the rising inequality in society has absolutely bugger all to do with capitalism, neoliberalism or The Man. People are marrying later and this pushes up inequality:

The royal wedding was not really about economics, though if there were indeed upwards of two billion people watching at least some of it on television – getting towards one third of humankind – there will certainly be an economic impact. That will unfold in the months ahead. Meanwhile there is one aspect of the wedding that highlights a hugely important economic issue: the decline of random mating.

To explain, the issue is whether people marry, or form partnerships, with people who are like themselves in education, income and so on. Or do they choose people who are very different. If people choose those who are like themselves, that is called assortative mating. If they choose people who are different, that is random mating.

Yes, entirely so.

– the general pattern of recent years, particularly in the US, has been for mating to become less random. In other words, people are tending to choose mates who are more like themselves, not less. One result is increased inequality.

There have been a number of studies of this, of which the best-known (and much criticised) one was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality.

Indeed. And to the causes and implications of it.

The household is the basic human economic unit. A household with two professional earners is going to have a higher income – and likely more wealth – than one with one professional and one stuck in wage drudgery. Than one with two working stiffs. Further, a two earner household will have a higher income than a one earner one.

Time was when marriage was something largely brokered by friends and family. Sure, this led to a certain amount of that assortion. The circle of who you could meet determined who you did and who you selected among. But marriage all took place rather before career success. And where it didn’t there was rather a lot of marriage across those professional classes – the boss marrying his secretary was a cliche because it happened.

These days? We marry later. And we largely do so among that set we know from work. People are thus sorted into career classes before mates are looked for and found. We’ve thus a very large rise in the two professional income family. Women’s just and welcome economic emancipation has increased the effect of this of course. It’s now not just possible but likely to that two professional incomes means two serious incomes. And the people who are in one earner households tend to be those at the lower levels of the economic ladder as well. Because child care costs so much it’s only really viable to pay for it out of a professional, rather than humdrum, female income.

This is a significant cause of increased household economic inequality. And there’s also bugger all to be done about it. It’s not about The Man, capitalism or anything that can be attacked. It’s about something as personal as who we decide to shag long term. And no, that’s not an area we think viable for government intervention.

Actually, this is such an issue that it’s not obvious that there’s any other cause of the rise in household economic inequality. That being so any of the mooted changes to capitalism, neoliberalism, The Man, won’t make a damn bit of difference. Except, of course, to make us all generally poorer.