Is Zoe Williams always this ignorant?

Nowhere is this more evident and yet more tacit than in relationships: people marry into their own class. It\’s called \”assortative mating\”.

Err, no. People have generally married into their own class. Assortative mating describes how people seem to be marrying into their own job classification rather than class these days. We are trying to describe how mating habits have changed, not how they were.

For example, time was that a nice middle class girl would indeed marry a nice middle class boy. Or working class or aristocratic or upper middle class, each to their own. The ways around this were either the attainment of great wealth for a man or the possession of great beauty for a woman. Plus the inevitable bits and bobs of luck and happenstance.

The important point being that marriage was usually defined by the class one came from. Assortative mating is an attempt to describe what happens now, not what happened then.

We marry later, women expect to work for a living. 50% go to university and so on. Marriage is now something that happens at the end of one\’s 20s, not the beginning. Mates therefore are being found at university, or in those first few years of the career. Now we have lawyers marrying lawyers, plumbers marrying plumbers (err, OK, not so much but you get the idea). We have now the two professional income family, something almost unknown two generations ago. This very definitely leads to income inequality across households: but this is the process that assortative mating is trying to describe. That we have moved from a system of class based marriage to something much more like income or job based marriage.

Or if you prefer, marriage is now about what socio-economic group one is moving into rather than the one you came from.

Yes, yes, all the usual caveats about averages and so on. But Zoe dear has got entirely the wrong end of the stick on this.

8 thoughts on “Is Zoe Williams always this ignorant?”

  1. I thought in Jane Austen novels women were always trying to “marry up”. Hypergamy is the clever-sounding word for it.

    My dad married his secretary. That was marrying up for my mum – even though my dad had himself just escaped a working-class factory floor background.

    I think there’s a good argument that there’s less class mobility through marriage now, even though there’s presumably more ethnic and cultural mixing.

  2. I think there’s a good argument that there’s less class mobility through marriage now

    Because our ‘class’, if such a thing is still as relevant as the lefties insist, is what we make of our lives. Dad a bricky, you a lawyer? You’re ‘middle class’, as much as anybody cares.

    Comprehensive school, no university? But you join the Hussars as an officer? You’ll be indistinguishable from an impoverished scion of the aristocracy before you are worrying about being selected for an extension of your initial commission.

  3. The girl Zoe comes from a relatively gilded background and is unlikely to appreciate the difference. Many of my working-class female contemporaries married up, usually to a solicitor or accountant. They sent their sons to grammar or public school and made sure the boys pursued a professional occupation that was one up on their father (you need to read Daphne du Maurier or Sigmund Freud for motivation). As Tim suggests, the sons subsequently marry ‘their own’, and usually this meant someone they met at university or in chambers. So-called social mobility isn’t entirely dead but it isn’t as commonplace as it used to be. When I left school it appeared an 80/20 split in favour of working class over middle-class. Nowadays the reverse applies, or so it seems. It’s not so easy to make it up the ladder when there are so many standing in your way.

  4. “Assortative mating is an attempt to describe what happens now, not what happened then.”

    Well, no, assortative mating simply means the tendency of humans and animals to mate with similar individuals, then as well as now. That similarity may arise in all sorts of ways, from straighforward physical resemblance to similarity of religion, age, political affiliation and, yes, “class”. So I don’t see that Zoe Williams is using the term wrongly.

    It’s certainly not a term to describe “how people seem to be marrying into their own job classification rather than class these days”, nor is it purely a contemporary phenomenon.

    Your accusation of ignorance is misplaced.

  5. Hi Surreptitious Evil

    At one time only a small proportion of the population received higher education – a far lower proportion than was potentially able to benefit from it. For cultural reasons, most of that minority were also men. Under such a dispensation, marriage was almost the only means of social climbing available to women.

    There’s been a big one-off raising of the educational potential of the population in the postwar period. Now that’s happened and worked its way through, the reshuffle is mostly done and people are settling down into new IQ-plus-income bands of marital stratification.

    Now almost everyone who could benefit from higher education can get it (Arguably, even some people who aren’t suited to it are getting it too. That’s another argument).

    At the bottom, social movement up is probably harder than it was a few decades ago. The collapse of marriage and the rise of illegitimacy makes it harder to leverage the kind of parental investment that could advance your descendants. (Okay, I know J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter when she was a divorced and broke single mum. But she’d already been to university, and had a fair amount of middle class cultural capital to draw on.)

  6. @ georgesdelatour
    The numbers don’t add up: women were encouraged to marry up and it was frowned upon if they married “below their station”; however apart from a handful of aristocrats who chose to become nuns (and a larger number of lower-class men who became soldiers and died unmarried) there is no way that women, in general, can marry up.

  7. john77

    “The numbers don’t add up: women were encouraged to marry up and it was frowned upon if they married “below their station”; however apart from a handful of aristocrats who chose to become nuns (and a larger number of lower-class men who became soldiers and died unmarried) there is no way that women, in general, can marry up.”

    You’re assuming social mobility is inherently a zero sum game. The child of an unemployed junkie can only become a classical conductor if the child of a classical conductor swaps places and becomes an unemployed junkie.

    Even if that’s true – and I don’t think it is in post-Malthusian industrial societies – there’s an argument that a society in which the spoils get comprehensively reshuffled each generation may be preferable to one with built-in caste-like rigidity.

    But what used to happen was that, in effect, the whole society “married up”, though a kind of upward aspirational conveyor belt. Even a poorer working-class man had to show to his would-be working class bride that marrying him was a better deal than marrying the other guy. He’d work hard, provide, stay out of jail etc. And this gave the kids of the poor a better chance of competing with the kids of the rich. That’s why the collapse of marriage is generally harmful to the poor.

  8. @ georgesdelatour
    Could you, just for once, credit the readers of this blog with an IQ in excess of their shoe size?
    And don’t be so Toynbee-style insulting to the average working-class guy who normally worked (very hard) to earn enough to support his wife and family. Your gross insolence implies that it was “marrying up” and most guys did not do that.
    With an aristocratic name like “de la tour” one might understand your prejudices, but not your ignorance of the laws of arithmetic: social mobility involves one spouse marrying up and the other marrying down. The numbers must balance (unless you postulate a vast number of black widows).
    Your stupidity and bigotry is demonstrated by your assumption that “The child of an unemployed junkie can only become a classical conductor if the child of a classical conductor swaps places and becomes an unemployed junkie.”
    Society has changed, largely thanks to SuperMac: now a majority are middle-class with jobs that are comfortable with little physical requirements and incomes that, even adjusted for inflation, are a multiple of MPs’ salaries in 1951 .
    There is a genuine debate about the benefits and otherwise of an IHT of 100%. This a separate topic so don’t drag it into this debate (especially since you have been comprehensively and widely refuted).

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