Power Couples

Town and Country

I am sitting on an old style white chalked brick veranda with a sweeping view of expansive forests and rolling hills. The forests cover about five times the area of the settlements in their middle. I grew up here, so although I cannot see the detail of the selvage from where I sit, I know it to harbor fir, spruce, white oak, maple, beeches and birches. On a warm humid day with wind you can smell the spruce. And with the hindsight of economic studies, I recognize the region to host a wood cluster, from forestry along the value chain of industrial and fine carpentry and about any wood product a house may need. Some of the unpretentious medium sized manufacturers are world market leaders for a random product, like a kind of wood siding, or window caulking. Social networks in the small towns are dense, it is easy to know everyone living in the region, at least a little.

When I left this peaceful place for the first time to live in a big city, one of the things that struck me was the anonymity that reigns once you hit the million person mark. Every day you meet people and families that your parents or other kin did not know before. You have to actively build up a stock of knowledge about them, and several people may not have 'a reputation' of some sort because the turnover of interactions is so fast and fluid.

At the same time, the amount of opportunities and choice are wonderful. In the city I moved to, you had a bus for every destination you wanted to get to, a course for any subject you wanted to learn. Out of the 6m inhabitants, you had a pool of at least 1m you could interact with and recruit friends from. It was easy to match preferences among friends, from classical music over poetry to spiritual brand. Sports, music and any other hobby could be practiced at near olympic standards. (And the city we are talking about is Bogota, not Boston. In the 1990s. Just for the record.) The variety of jobs people did was diverse too. In addition to teachers and doctors, I met salesmen, bankers, engineers, painters, entrepreneurs in retail, textile manufacturing, forwarding and furniture design, employees and managers of multinationals. I could make out a couple of clusters touching the city: the beverage industry, furniture and jewelry design, pharma and cosmetics. Professional activities mingled and overlapped and moving from one to another was a more obvious and more frequent choice than in my original forestial dwelling.

Love in the City

Which surroundings are best for your dating? It depends. As people couple up, they think about compatibility. This includes natural affinity, values and preferences, but it also includes very practical matters. Such as, will both partners work, and where will they work. The industrially more diverse metropolitan environment is likely to hold more options for either half of the couple. If both partners want to work, they will be more able to do that in the city rather than in the country. They are also more likely to find a better job match in the city. I.e. the more demanding and peculiar they are about what they want to do, the more they will benefit from the better odds in the city of actually finding it. In principle. We will see about the exceptions later.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn mined valuable data from the US and corroborated this story in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (Nov 2000). Between 1940 and 1990, the college educated drifted increasingly to cities, and the biggest driver of this drift was the emergence of Dual Earner couples. By far. Husband AND wife started to work, and career minded people increasingly mated with career minded people. (As for why this suddenly happened, see my previous post on Opposites Distract.)

This does not mean there are no power couples in the countryside, but if you look closely you will realize they are far fewer. And mostly covering the essential services: medicine, teaching, pharmacy, religion. Unless both partners happen to specialize in the particular local industry.

The emergence of dual earners is a sign of greater equality in couples. But the process of their concentration in cities helps create spaces of two speeds. By attracting qualified people more easily, cities will thrive more. While the countryside suffers brain drain. Over time, with the process continuing, town and country may drift apart in productivity and wealth.

Digital Desegregation

However, let's not forget that this is 2016. The economic development I describe above applies to jobs that are geographically bound, that need a specific place of work and personal presence. This requirement is fading for many industries. Digital jobs like programmer and web designer can be done from anyplace with an internet connection, and so can many back -- and sometimes front office jobs in finance, medicine and retail. Also presence jobs in fields as diverse as diplomacy, engineering and science often have phases that can be covered effectively and (more) efficiently through telework.

And this is why I can sit on the white veranda and enjoy the clean air and the view of the forests in the evening sun. My blog will soon be posted to the internet, visible in town and country alike.