Sunday 20 January 2019

Another Angle: Elite dating apps threaten to worsen US equality gap

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Jeanna Smialek

Their romance began on a server at a San Francisco startup. Anna Wood had submitted a profile to the League, a dating app aimed at young professionals. She was the perfect prospect: Degree from a top university? Check. Management-track job at a marquee company? Check. Carefully selected profile pictures and a winning smile? Check and check.

The League's algorithm quickly matched Wood, who'd been working in sales at Google and had just been admitted to Stanford University's business school, with Tracy Thomas, an employee at a Bay Area startup. Within a week, they'd arranged to meet at a tennis tournament. Sushi, drinks, and frozen yogurt followed. Three years later, they're engaged and living in Los Angeles while Thomas wraps up his own business degree. "It was important to me that someone I was going on a date with was well-educated and driven, and had a lot of the same goals I did," says Wood, who now runs a lifestyle blog and coaching service called Brains Over Blonde. "I have big career ambitions, and that had, in the past, intimidated - scared away - people I'd dated."

The League is among a new crop of elite dating apps whose business models are predicated on the age-old reality that courtship is partly an economic exercise.

The services are facilitating unions between educated, affluent millennials who are clustering in such US cities as San Francisco and New York. In the process, they could be helping to intensify America's growing income inequality.

Dating apps "help you find exactly what you want," says Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University. Now, "you marry a college professor across town, a lawyer in DC, rather than someone you work with or someone your brother-in-law matched you up with."

The app initially targeted Bay Area singles. "There's pure, unbridled ambition here, and that was something that I wanted to rein in and help people who are busy and doing amazing things find other people who are busy and doing amazing things," says founder Amanda Bradford, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science graduate. Bradford was working toward her MBA at Stanford when she hit on the idea of an exclusive dating app. She had just come out of a relationship and was unimpressed by the online matchmaking sites she tried. She launched the League in 2015; its tag line is 'Meet. Intelligently'.

The service now has 300,000 active users and a 500,000 waiting list. The business operates on what's known as the freemium model. Those who join at no cost are entitled to three daily "prospects", while $349 (€282) a year buys you more prospects and an assortment of other perks, such as "VIP passes" to get your friends' membership applications fast-tracked. The admission rate ranges from 20pc to 30pc, depending on the market.

The League has no shortage of competitors. Luxy, which bills itself as the No 1 online match and dating service for millionaires, says half of its active members earn more than $500,000. Raya calls itself a "private, membership based community for people all over the world to connect and collaborate". Sparkology describes itself as a "curated dating experience for young professionals" and accepts members only by invitation or referral. "Ladies, you asked for quality gentlemen: Men are verified grads of top universities," reads the pitch to prospective female clients on its home page.

Such apps have become an integral part of the millennial mating game. Nationally, just 10pc of 20- to 24-year-olds registered with an online matchmaking service in 2013 but just two years later that has almost tripled to 27pc.

"I would prefer to meet someone organically, but if I'm in an airport, and just walking to and from the office, that's not going to happen," says consultant Joslyn Williams, who moved to the Chicago area from Nashville and immediately signed up for the League.

The clustering effect of college-educated singles in cities - more than half of adults living in city centres in 2015 had degrees, up from 29pc in 1990 - is reinforcing another phenomenon: More Americans are seeking spouses with similar levels of schooling, a pattern known as assortative mating. Couples in which both members had at least a four-year degree made up 14.7pc of all married people in the US in 2015, up from just 1.9pc in 1960, when far fewer women attended universities, according to Wendy Wang at the Institute for Family Studies.

Education-based marriage-matching moves in lockstep with inequality, according to research by University of California at Los Angeles sociologist Robert Mare. What Mare calls educational homogamy was high in the Gilded Age, fell off in the 1950s - when incomes were more even - and has marched higher in recent decades.

The pattern can also perpetuate inequality, since college graduates have higher earning potential and consolidate that advantage under one roof.

Millennial households headed by a college graduate earn more than comparable families in prior generations, according to Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew. That's partly because of their higher wages and partly because they're far more likely to marry than their non-college peers. Less-educated households, by contrast, make less than prior generations. If dating services make it easier to find, date, and marry people with similar backgrounds, they could compound the rift.

On the League, about 30pc of users come from Ivy League schools, and they're more than twice as likely to match with one another. Overall, users with similar education levels are three times as likely to match.

Jay Feldman, named among the 20 "most eligible" medical professionals in New York, says he would prefer to date someone with an education - because it makes for better conversation and because she needs to be "presentable" if he takes her home to his family.

He took the six months he spent on the waiting list before being admitted into the League as a good sign.

"It's the same kind of principle as going to a club," he says. "If they make you wait, it must be good."


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