A fascinating new paper by Robert Mare, a sociologist at UCLA, gives a first-of-its kind picture of trends in “educational homogamy” (the tendency of people to marry others with similar levels of education) over the course of the twentieth century. The result is what Mare calls a “great U-turn.” Educational homogamy was very high at the turn of the 20th century (the Gilded Age), then “declined to an all-time low for young couples in the early 1950s, and has increased steadily since then.”
High levels of education-based assortative mating are likely both a cause and consequence of economic inequality. It’s a cause because children born to two highly educated parents have more resources at their disposal than two children born to less-educated parents, and it’s a consequence because a wide social distance between groups may make them less likely to intermingle. Regardless of its relationship with economic inequality, however, it’s clear that the steady rise of educational homogamy is indicative an ever-more siloed elite (a group that, in our opinion, is increasingly out of touch with non-elites, and increasingly beholden to establishmentarian groupthink).
The irony here is that a partial cause of this trend is the rise of meritocracy. Today, women are more likely to go to college and peoples’ wages are more tightly correlated with their education, which increases the incentive to marry someone of a similar educational status. These developments are related to the end of class-based privilege and the rise of a fairer, more egalitarian system. And yet, a byproduct of our hyper-meritocracy is an ever-more pronounced system of educational assortative mating that makes our society more stratified and more unequal.