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The 'Two-Body Problem' Challenges Small Town Workforces

Academia's "two-body problem" may be affecting other industries as women pursue more specialized careers and marry similarly educated men. Two-career couples are likely to gravitate toward larger metro areas with job opportunities for both partners.
November 10, 2015, 8am PST | Luke Juday
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Erica J. Mitchell

Women are increasingly earning advanced degrees in specialized fields. Combine this with the fact that people of similar education levels tend to marry one another and highly skilled laborers often have to move for better job opportunities and you have the "two-body problem." The term is commonly used by academics to describe the conflicts that occur when PhD's marry one another. Tenure-track jobs are scarce, highly specialized, and often located in remote college towns, making it difficult for both partners to find a job in the same location.

As the number of women lawyers, doctors, scientists, business executives, and engineers increases, more highly-educated couples outside academia are facing the two-body problem.

The natural solution for many couples is a move to a larger metropolitan area that can provide more career options in a variety of fields. In the nation's largest metro areas, a higher share of couples have two college degree holders, while couples with one college graduate are more evenly distributed.

The two-body problem could mean trouble for smaller towns and cities trying to attract highly-skilled jobs and workers. Local economic developers need to think regionally to cobble together opportunities for skilled workers' romantic partners. More creative working options may also become more common. Many of the top metro areas for telecommuting are small cities with major universities - ground zero for the two-body problem.

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Published on Monday, November 9, 2015 in StatChat: the blog of the UVA Demographics Research Group
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