Recession dating: Washington singles still finding a way

For Justine Morgan, six months of online dating in Washington has uncovered an observable trend.

“What I’ve noticed in people’s profiles, they have been transitioning from ‘Let’s go get dinner’ to ‘Let’s go get coffee or drinks,’ ” said the 30-year-old law librarian at Winston & Strawn.

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“The economy had tanked,” she said. “From a guy’s perspective, dating can be really expensive.”

Morgan isn’t imagining things; men have been particularly hard-hit by this recession. According to Mark Perry, a visiting economist at the American Enterprise Institute, last summer the U.S. saw a “historic, record-breaking gap” in unemployment by gender, when the rate for men hit 11 percent, compared to 8.3 percent for women.

Times continue to be tough across the country for nearly everyone. The national unemployment rate at the beginning of the year was 10.6 percent.

Washington is not immune from the economic woes; it posted an unemployment rate in the same period of 12.1 percent, well above the national average.

But Washingtonians are finding creative and inexpensive ways to continue their romantic pursuits even during the rough economic times.

Casey Dawkins, the co-director of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria, has found many low-cost activities since moving here more than a year ago.

“One thing about D.C. is there are so many free things to do,” he said. “Unlike other cities, if you’re strapped for cash, there are museums and jazz and the sculpture garden. There are great date ideas that aren’t expensive.”

The recession itself can even be a boon to dating in D.C. Recent studies have found that during an economic downturn, people pursue relationships even more.

A December 2008 national study conducted by eHarmony and Opinion Research Corp. found that, of more than 1,000 adults polled, 19 percent of unmarried men and 25 percent of unmarried women wanted to be in a long-term relationship more as a result of the current economic climate.

In November 2008, Match.com experienced its largest membership growth in the last seven years, with men accounting for 56 percent of subscribers.

During the same period, eHarmony discovered that page views went up nearly 2 percent on days when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 100 points or more, compared with days when the Dow increased by the same amount.

eHarmony’s senior director of research and development, Gian Gonzaga, explained in 2008 that “close relationships help people cope with stress, so we gravitate toward finding and maintaining them when times are tough.”

Times may be tough for many, but what about all the people in Washington who aren’t feeling the same pinch as the rest of the city or country?

“I talk to my friends in New York, and they are all out of work,” said State Department Desk Officer Ilan Goodman, 29. “In general, in D.C. people are getting by.”

Not only are they just getting by, people in D.C., particularly in the public sector, are doing pretty well compared with their private-sector counterparts.

Unemployment rates for government workers have been nearly five full percentage points below those of private-sector workers during the recession, and a December report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, when accounting for both wages and benefits, government employees make 45 percent more on average than those in the private sector.

In addition, the number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded, increasing 46 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

“People who work for the government have done very, very well in the recession,” Perry said.

But does this good financial fortune extend to their dating lives?

“I’ve gone on a lot of dates,” said Tom, 31, a foreign affairs officer in the State Department who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his status on the dating market. “I’ve been pretty insulated as a government employee.”

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“I think I’ve dated more this year than in previous years,” Goodman echoed.

According to Tom, the recession has also helped his dating life by making him focus on what’s really important.

“It’s much easier to be dating when you’re carefree,” he said. “The recession draws out of you what you really want to be doing, married versus single.”

Virginia Tech’s Dawkins agrees.

“Dealing with a higher cost of living and dealing with the dating world made me prioritize,” he said. “Now I’m looking for someone I’m really compatible with.”

Another thing Dawkins, 37, has noticed about dating in Washington during the recession: Education levels here tend to be pretty high.

“One thing about this region is there are a lot of really highly educated, successful people who live here,” he said. “Government typically attracts people with Ph.D.s, graduate degrees; the average education is usually a master’s degree.”

This can be another recession buffer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For Americans without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 14.4 percent as of January. For those with a bachelor’s degree, it’s 4.1 percent.

Morgan, the law librarian, has noticed higher education levels in Washington, too. “Here we tend to go forward, get our master’s, our career, then say, ‘It would be nice to have a family now.’

“People are really focused on their careers,” she said. “But I’m not sure it’s D.C.; it might be our age.”

She might not be far off. According to a 2008 study from the Pew Research Center, Washington has the highest median age of first marriage in the nation; typically, 32 years old for the first “I do.”

For those Washingtonians who finally do decide to take the marriage plunge, the recession could help there as well. For General Services Administration Federal Information Specialist Jacob Parcell it did, anyway.

When Parcell, 30, decided to pop the question last winter to his girlfriend of two years, he scored some amazing deals thanks to the bad economy.

Parcell found inexpensive airline tickets to Niagara Falls, N.Y., setting the stage for a romantic proposal. As for the ring, he got a break on a platinum, custom-designed sparkler at a shop in Alexandria. He also found specials on hotels and meals for the engagement trip.

The recession helped seal the deal; she said yes, a big relief for Parcell.

Dating is “not easy, and I can’t imagine it being any easier during a recession,” he said. “I don’t envy any of those guys that are still looking for somebody. … Personally, I think if I lost my job, dating would be the last thing on my mind.”