How Marriage and Romance Might Benefit From a Design Eye
As a strategist, a futurist, and a woman navigating the dating scene for the first time in a decade, I have thoughts – a lot of thoughts – on the state of dating, love, marriage, fidelity, pregnancy, and everything even remotely associated with these topics. Admittedly, I find it nearly impossible not to view love and relationships through the lens of strategy and design.
Lately, I’ve noticed an emerging pattern of signals. One signal in particular stood out: According to VICE, 40% of Japanese women have allegedly “moved on” from trying to find relationships and are instead opting for rent-a-boyfriend services. It’s even more interesting, however, that they are hiring these men to cry with them, which is considered the pinnacle – and often most uncomfortable expression – of intimacy, especially for Japanese women. This struck a chord with me.
The decision to stop dating does not seem to be a trend isolated to Japan. In China, an increasing number of women are choosing to delay marriage in favor of pursuing careers and finding real love. This is creating tidal waves of angst among older generations. After over three decades under the single-child policy, entire family lineages in China rest on the shoulders of these children. And yet, despite the fact that there are 33 million more men than women in China, unmarried women over the age of 25 are called “leftover women.”
Across the Pacific, similar stories are emerging. A book titled Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, written by New York-based writer Kate Bolick, explores multiple narratives for women “beyond the marriage plot.” In a recent article for Flare, “Why I’m Giving Up Men and Just Staying Home,” Sarah Ratchford writes about the Stay at Home Club, a group of women who are proactively exiting the dating scene to find fulfillment in their friendships and careers instead.
According to an article in The Economist called “Single Women: Why Put a Ring On It,” as of 2016, the number of unmarried women is exceeding the number of married women for the first time. Single women now buy homes at greater rates than single men, signifying a big step in independent wealth building. A decade ago, we were concerned with whether or not women could “have it all” and questioning why there were so many great single women. But we are now moving toward a trend of women simply carrying on with their lives and even avoiding the dating scene altogether.
This is significant because, married or not, many of us go through life feeling the weight of that invisible metronome. For women, that may center on pregnancy, or it may link to the feeling of being a depreciating stock in a world that idolizes youth and beauty. For others, it’s a marker of ambiguous milestones that is heavily laden with what they “should” do by a certain age. This rush is in tension with new ideals of marriage and relationships, where the expectation is to accomplish certain personal milestones before the knot is tied; marriage comes only after self-realization.
So where do these behaviors come from, considering the importance that has been placed on partnering up for so long? Let’s consider two of the oldest behaviors in the dating world: chivalry and monogamy. In his book, Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, Jon Birger argues that chivalry and monogamy are not necessarily natural, but rather that these are a response to market adaption. Whether or not you agree with his point, the idea of market adaption is provocative. It makes sense that our dating behavior would, in some shape or form, be dictated by market drivers, and this goes beyond simply being sick of Tinder.
It can be argued that women are gaining a better sense of self-worth and greater confidence, and are holding fast to idyllic notions of what relationships should be. Because of this, we are simply choosing not to settle down with the wrong person. Thanks to social media and urban density, we now have stronger social networks than ever. It might be the case that the concept of the nuclear family is no longer necessary; in fact, this arrangement may be more restrictive than other possibilities. This is coupled with the growing recognition that the modern concept of marriage isn’t necessarily a fair arrangement for women. While the benefits of marriage have often been touted, the benefits for men far outweigh those for women. For example, while life expectancy for women stays the same with or without marriage, life expectancy is actually much longer for married men.
As a result, many women are taking longer to reach a point where they feel comfortable sitting at the marriage-negotiation table. Waiting longer to settle down means that women are able to better negotiate and navigate their marriage arrangements and retain control over their assets. Delaying marriage is certainly having positive economic effects: According to The Economist, women aged 25 to 34 are the first generation to start their careers near parity with men, earning 93% of men’s wages. This is also having a positive effect on marriages when they do eventually take place. The article goes on to say that, despite the increasingly complex landscape of relationships and the declining rates of marriage, those who do get married are less likely to divorce – particularly those who have chosen to hold out for the right match.
What this is signaling is that, unlike in decades past when women may have dated to find a spouse for security or status, there is now a social rejection of the idea that women must marry into success or stability. And, as women are attaining more economic power and are delaying marriage, they are starting to manipulate the market by purchasing and developing products and services that empower their independence.
From biohacking to paid dating, a plethora of tools are becoming available for reassembling and optimizing life as a single person. In our homes, we are out-sourcing and automating everything from laundry and childrearing to our grocery lists. Technocrats are taking a similar approach to relationships by breaking down the magic of courtship into modular bits; the meeting and mating process is now being shortened and simplified. But by developing solutions for literal painpoints – rejection, confusion, awkward silences, sexual frustration – what we are creating is the emotional equivalent of Soylent. The result, in some sense, is that we are creating a collage of living simulations and catering to our need for control and a life of productivity.
Further, reducing our dependency on coupledom has both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, equality and the augmentation of biology may level the playing field, giving women a greater advantage and more opportunity to contribute skills. On the other hand, there is something necessary about preserving our dependencies on one another, as essential aspects of the human experience lie within the vulnerability of the dating dance. Still, we may begin to see a shift to a world that is increasingly individualistic, disrupting the type, frequencies, and timing of romantic relationships as we know them.
This may mean developing products and services that not only cater to those with an independent status, but that also provide opportunities for singles to optimize their lives. Service developments may include the facilitation of purchases of smaller homes or the banding of multiple buyers together for large-scale investments. Products and the way they are sold require rethinking – including everyday items, like groceries.
The economy already benefits from the spending of single people. Single women spend 35% more per person on groceries and twice as much on hair and beauty products than women who are in relationships. A campaign by skincare brand SK-II tapped into this trend by developing an emotional video that spoke directly to China’s “leftover women,” empowering them to be true to themselves in their choice to seek fulfillment in their careers and to wait for real love, despite immense pressure from their parents to get married.
As more women are remaining single, either by choice or by design, we may also need to examine the ways in which the marketplace for certain types of labor may change. Ohlala, for example, is an app that allows women to charge for dates; it is flipping dating dynamics on their head. While some see this as the digitization of escort services, there are women who use it simply as a way to appropriate the market for paid relationship services, leading some to question whether this is about the development of a marketplace for paid, emotional labor.
But there are other matters to consider as well. If time becomes increasingly scarce and more valued, how will we begin to view the work traditionally performed by women at no cost in the past? Will the provision of care become a premium, lucrative service as women have less time to provide this for free, and as technology takes on a greater role in providing it? As women begin to step away from free labor and into power, we are sure to see a premium placed on unpaid work.
One thing is for sure: These changes, however they occur, are creating more complex personas for marketers to sell to. Women, just like everyone else, have many needs occurring at different stages in their lives. They require business and science to provide tools for designing the kind of lives they want to live. The new human-centered design should empower people, including women, to be the designers of their own lives.
Let’s look at this through a different lens. The first plow revolutionized the way that food was produced and the way that we thought about agriculture. But the plow itself was not what was truly impressive; instead, as history revealed, the plow was simply a ladder to social progress, liberation, and, eventually, a major driver in shifting the economic and social landscape far beyond food production. The ways in which we achieve our end goals are still, and will always be, innovated, but the needs at the core of these goals are fixed prospects.
Technologies that facilitate or substitute human connection will have complicated, unforeseen implications for the future that transcend the realities of the technologies themselves. Personally, I’m not sure that I will be jumping on the bandwagon to suppress oxytocin or vasopressin next time I feel the unmistakable fear that accompanies a budding attachment, nor do I think that we’re headed toward a dystopian reality of love where technology and simulation form the patchwork of our emotional lives. Instead, these technologies and services will eventually fade as we invent new ways to meet our needs. The real productivity will be in how these technologies shape us socially – and I’m completely optimistic about that.
As an innovation strategist, my job is not to see barriers, but possibilities – and to build pathways to those possibilities. It’s a precise kind of optimism. They say that necessity is the mother of invention; these stories about women from around the world indicate that self-prioritization, combined with a healthy dash of idealism, will be the gateway to social progress.