Dating And The Gig Economy: “Labor of Love” by Moira Weigel

Labor of Love by Moira Weigel

In May, Sensei Claire Marshall published a piece, “Why The Gig Economy Is Like A Bad Boyfriend”, which made a very perceptive comparison of dating and the contemporary gig economy [1]. Like dating, “selling yourself” in the gig economy is a lot of work, and often goes unrepaid. I remarked that she left off the one most telling parallel of all: ‘He’ is not interested in a relationship with you.

Marshall’s simile got me thinking about this correlation. It cannot be a coincidence that the same technology is employed by swipe-left dating apps and Uber-style gig markets.

Weigel on “The Labor of Love”

With this question in my head, I encountered Moira Weigel’s new book, “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” [6]. Weigel’s history of American courtship customs documents how the popular culture surrounding “dating” has changed over the last centuries, but retained some consistent features. Dating generally “is a lot of work, particularly for women” (hence the subtitle), and, of especial interest here, “the way we consume
love changes to reflect the 
economy of the times”.

Weigel shows how the migration of unmarried women to cities where they found (poorly paid) work outside the home led to the emergence of “dating” in public places. Living away from extended family, and with limited personal space and resources, young workers began to meet and court in public places, such as restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. Women (and working men) alienated from their rural and family roots, entered an open, public and competitive “market”.

At the same time, new forms of “women’s work” arose, which Weigel summarizes as “shop girls”. These jobs involve “emotional work”, selling the “girl” in order to sell the product. (Naturally, an industry arose to sell products to shop girls, too.) Weigel shows the strong parallels between the conception and demands of these jobs and the dating culture that emerged at the time. Shopgirls obsessed over their stylish appearance, flirted to make sales, and, in many cases, aimed to capture the interest and hand of one of the wealthy customers.

Both their jobs and dating required the same kind of work.” P. 47

Shopgirsl knew that dressing and speaking the right ways would help them get a job and the right job could help them find a man.” P. 49

When women were forced out of the labor market after the war, “dating” evolved to emphasize monogamous “steadies”, echoing the times that invented mass consumption and planned obsolescence. This was part of the new “teen” culture, and was largely self-policed. Cheating on your steady, like other social deviance, would be punished with ostracism and worse.

The free love sixties, Weigel suggests, represent deregulation of the “dating” market. Just as the rest of the culture was thrown open, and rules discarded, young people were expected (and required) to be able to try anything and everything. At the same time, Playboy and Cosmo taught men and women to eschew emotion, and trade in “desirability”. Furthermore, the Cosmo Girl continually works on her appearance and her job not to get a man, but simply to please men.

In subsequent decades, this market has become explicit, with popular culture and advice manuals teaching the goals and supposed techniques for successfully “shopping” for a husband, selling yourself, and imagined economics of trading sex for love and vice versa.

The market metaphor came to be realized in computer dating systems, that evolved into today’s match making, social media, and “swipe right” shopping apps. Dating is more work than ever; it has become necessary to create and continuously manage your digital “brand”, as well as multiple continuous data flows.

Digital “market places” have put a huge “selection” at your fingertips, so it has become essential to work hard on your “profile”, to describe exactly what you are looking for and are trading in return. Successful dating requires expert marketing skills, and significant dedication. The pressure is intense, adding to the other stresses on young students and workers.

Overall, Weigel views “dating” culture as driven by social and economic forces. The culture of “women’s work” epitomized by “shop girls” led to a dating culture of self-presentation (by women). The culture of suburban nuclear families let to “steady dating”. And so on.

The Chicken or the Egg?

But, thinking about Marshall’s observations, I have to wonder if the contemporary gig economy created the dating app lifestyle, or was it vice versa?

Exhibit A are the apps. The technology of both matchmaking services and “swipe-right” apps are essentially identical to those of Fiver or Uber. For that matter, the underlying ideology is the same: individual humans are players in a highly competitive market, and digital technology creates “efficient” markets (which is seen as “good” for “users”).

Marshall’s “bad boyfriend” requires a lot of work, she says, and offers no commitment or even much personal reward in return. Weigel (and Ansari and everyone) describe dating that requires a lot of work and offers no commitment or personal reward. And both these activities use the exact same technology.

Exhibit B is the demographics of app builders: they are young and in the dating pool. “Write what you know” is common advice, and what today’s app builders know is dating.

What could be more natural than extending dating services to everything, at least for those who have never been committed to either a relationship or a career?

I think the gig economy could also be called “the dating economy”, no?

The Gig Economy Is An Extension of Dating

So here’s a sketchy theory.

College age kids, caught up in the contemporary “hookup” culture (described by Weigel as emphasizing one night stands and emotional detachment) work on their “innovative projects”. They seek to solve the important problems in their life, with “dating” near the top of the list. Picking up the jargon from their business and marketing classes, they create market places, profiles, and shopping apps.

An app like Tinder presents a mirage of precisely the kind of endless sexual possibility that young people, dispersed over cities, miss from their undergraduate years.” Weigel p. 99

Soon theses developers need to go out in the world to tackle other problems, with “making a living” near the top of the list. Naturally, they will apply what they learned in school (how to build dating services and market apps). From this angle, the savage world of outsourcing seems pretty much normal. It is certainly no more ruthless than the dating game, and, as the developers have proved, you can use the same technology.

The result is Uber, Fiver, coworking spaces, and the lot. See Claire Marshall’s blog and book, and, for that matter, Patricia Marx on “Outsourcing Yourself”.

Deploying the technology developed for dating throughout the economy has made the tendencies toward exploitation, outsourcing, and “gigs” economically feasible, and very profitable for the owners and gatekeepers. And it’s not just that young workers have no choice, it just seems natural to them.

In this case, I think “dating” has deeply influenced the general economy and society. Everybody knows about digital profiles and personal branding. Everyone is used to rating systems and online shopping. These things came right out of dating services, and now they are at the center of the economy.

The gig economy didn’t create the online dating scene, the dating culture created the digitally driven gig economy.

I would note that this hypothesis suggests sources of discomfort and resistance to this economy.

Older people are generally uncomfortable with the gig economy, and not just because we “can’t compete”. For those who have not been dating recently, turning the job market into a singles bar is alien and uncomfortable. It is not the way we deal with people, and it makes little sense in a world filled with long term commitments.

Similarly, anyone with a career or profession, or a commitment to an institution (not to mention a family), is not only threatened by the gig economy, but is psychologically averse to it. Some people believe that it is virtuous to dedicate your life to building something other than a fortune. If every job is a temporary day job, how does one build relationships with people, how does one raise a family, how does one nurture a community, how does one build a legacy or even a home? These are not goals that you achieve through “dating”, however “efficient” the technology.

Finally, returning to Marshall and Weigel, who seem to agree that both dating and gigs are a lot of work (especially for women), including emotional labor. They are also basically unfair and exploitative. Weigel makes very clear that much of the psychology of dating is damaging and destructive. Following Marshall’s analogy, I would suggest that the gig economy is similarly corrosive (perhaps especially to women).

While young workers celebrate their “autonomy”, many suffer economic hardship, powerlessness, and, following one of Weigel’s points, alienation from their own desires. If you must live from gig to gig, you are not doing your own work, nor living your own life. Even if you are technically organized as your own “one person company”, if you are treated like a temp, you are alienated from your own work, which is central to your self-worth.

Today, the average millennial spends no more than three years at any job, and more than 30 percent of the workforce Is freelance. Hooking up gives you the steely heart you need to live with these odds. Like a degree in media studies, it prepares you for anything and nothing in particular.” Weigel p. 101

What Is To Be Done?

This possibly deep correlation between “dating” and the gig economy implies that  “solutions” for one may be valuable improvements for the other—and may pay off double in the lives of young workers. What might we want to try?

I’m sure that some kinds of work-related initiatives, such as the Freelancers Union are valuable to workers and their loved ones, but I wouldn’t foresee a “Daters Union” being of any use.  Nor do platform co-ops (e.g., a worker owned “Uber” clone) offer much help for dating apps, though they are the best idea for workers. I think the problem with Tinder isn’t exploitation by the owners, it is self-exploitation by the users.

I also have to cringe and cross my fingers hoping for the best when I read something like Melissa Mesku’s “Coworking: the best place for hookups in 2015?” [4]. Coworking is “being integrated into the social lives of tens of thousands of people. For many, that social potential includes the potential for hookups and romance.” She’s no doubt right, but it’s probably a  bad idea, just as bad as dating at work.  (And you can bet that women will bear the brunt of the trouble.)

The question is, as we look to create a “real” sharing economy, a la Sensei Claire Marshall, would lead to better dating and relationships? I think the answer is clearly “yes”. Marshall has observed, among other lessons, “We act differently when money is removed” and “We are happiest when we share”.

(See her articles and book [2, 3]).

Applying these findings to “dating” is pretty simple: if we just work together at sharing and helping each other, we don’t really need to date at all.

For example, a modified swipe-right dating app might work only with people who live very near you. This might be a slice of “potential partners” from a neighborhood social network or even a home coworking space. While you are at home, the digital app helps you know who is home, who wants to visit, and to ask and give help. Around town, it might let you know when one of your neighbors happens to be in the same area as you. (Note that this app is “profiling” on propinquity, which once upon a time was a key factor in mating and dating.)

Get to know your neighbors, and that will lead to romance.

Who knows if any of this makes sense?

But I think these are interesting angles to think about.

  1. Claire Marshall,  (2016) Why The Gig Economy Is Like A Bad Boyfriend. Huffington Post (Austrailia),
  2. Claire Marshall, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015.
  3. Claire Marshall. The Sharing Experiment. 2015, – !the-sharing-experiment/c1fuq.
  4. Melissa Mesku,  (2015) Coworking: the best place for hookups in 2015? The New Worker,
  5. Alexandra Schwartz, WORK IT. New Yorker, 92 (15):74-81, 2016.
  6. Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.


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