CHICAGO - Ask any unmarried, overworked middle-class person looking for love, and he or she will tell you it seems hopeless. Finding Mr. or Miss Right is harder than ever.
In the 1950s, the median age of marriage for women in the United States was 20, and it was not much more for men. Most well-educated women met their husbands at university, where there was an ample supply of suitable partners. Men could do the same, or find a wife in the suburbs where they grew up, or marry a girl in the office.
The marriage age has crept steadily upward since then. Singles usually finished with university and graduate school before they grow serious about finding a partner.
And a rising divorce rate means more older people are searching for love for a second or a third time.
And in the past quarter of a century there has been no reliable institution where you can search for a prospective mate, says Bernard Beck, a sociologist at Northwestern University at Evanston, Ill. Places such as singles bars or health clubs often leave much to be desired.
Of course, there is always the workplace, where so many Americans seem to be spending an increasing amount of their time. But the lawyers are busy thwarting that possibility: insurers against sexual-harassment litigation are starting to tell companies that they ought to have "no-dating" policies.
And even employees who regard such restrictions as Orwellian tend to be hesitant about flirting in the office. Some relationships are bound to fail, and the only thing worse than a rotten colleague is a rotten colleague who is also an ex-lover.
It's Just Lunch (IJL) arranges "pre-screened lunch dates" for busy professionals. IJL customers pay $1,000 a year for a minimum of 12 dates. After each date, the customer reports to the firm on the quality of the match. In theory, each date should bring him or her closer to the desired perfect partner.
The firm does its business the old-fashioned way, face to face. But the Internet is almost certainly a growing part of the dating business.
Match.com, for instance, claims 3 million members and 38,000 new ones each week. It charges $40 a month to match members with others whom the computer deems compatible.
"It's about numbers, and it's also about time," says Fran Greene, Match.com's Director of Flirting and Dating. Indeed: your correspondent received 95 matches as soon as he started his trial membership.
Of course, the process involves screening. Goodgenes.com is open only to graduates of Ivy League universities and a handful of other superior colleges.
JDate.com caters to Jewish singles. Singleswithscruples.com is "an Internet dating site for people who have morals and a sense of honor."
None of which guarantees anything. "The probability of deception is quite high," says Norval Glenn, a sociologist at the University of Texas.
Many sites do not use real names until members have grown comfortable with one another. The advice that one Internet dating executive offers for the first face-to-face meeting sounds like a Cold-War espionage manual: meet in public, drive yourself, let someone know where you will be.
But the bigger problem is more banal. Because most matches arranged in such a way are liable to fail, the Internet may generally be introducing singles to even more people they don't particularly like.