But despite -- or perhaps because of -- such relentlessly bad news, there's an up side -- for daters, at least. Singles are wading into the online dating pool in record numbers, giving virtual matchmakers their best traffic figures in years -- and users even better odds for finding a snuggle buddy, a fling or the One.
In addition to "This Cougar is looking for her prey" and other bootylicious come-ons, lonely hearts are now headlining their posts with more somber come-hithers, such as "its a gloomy time of year and im not talking about the rain" or "need hot girlfriend, will provide food."
Whether they charge by the month or accept free posts, online personals websites are experiencing a major boost, even if their users seem to be scaling back on the cost and quantity of their actual dates. Craigslist personals postings and eHarmony.com registrations have each seen 20% increases in 2008. Match.com has seen an even larger spike; its memberships were 22% higher in December than they were in the same period last year. Even more interesting, both eHarmony and Match.com reported especially high traffic on days when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted.
"We had our third busiest weekend of the year following the five-year low in the stock market," said Mandy Ginsberg, general manager of Match.com North America.
That was in mid-November, a historically slow time for Internet dating. But ask people who were brave enough to check their 401(k) balances at that time: November was historic for other reasons too. Not only did the Dow dip below 8,000, but the unemployment rate in California also climbed well above the national average (to 8.2%) and housing prices were down 40% from their peak just 18 months prior.
Those disturbing trends aren't likely to end any time soon. In fact, they're likely to continue, bringing twin results: even higher anxiety levels, and impulses to entwine one's life with that of another.
"Stressful times can have a big effect on people's desire to be in relationships," said Gian Gonzaga, an eHarmony research scientist. "When people are feeling stressed about the economy and feeling stressed about their love lives, they're more likely to want to be in a relationship than when they're not feeling stressed."
Gonzaga was part of the eHarmony team that analyzed the results of a new relationship anxiety survey conducted by Opinion Research; 92% of 1,092 respondents reported feeling stressed about the economy. How does that manifest in individuals' desire for long-term relationships? About 19% of unmarried men and 25% of unmarried women said they wanted one even more.
Jamie Fields is one of those women. The 42-year-old from Santa Monica rejoined Match.com the weekend after Thanksgiving, having broken up with the guy she'd been seeing the last few months.
While Fields had attempted to find men more organically, i.e. in the real world, the last few times she'd been to wine bars with a girlfriend in the hopes of meeting someone new, she said, "We were like, 'Where are all the people?' There aren't any."
For Fields, it was the relatively recent void-of-people-in-public-places that led her to spend more time with her keyboard. But for a lot of other Americans, it's decreased wealth -- both real and perceived -- that's keeping them home, inspiring them to spend less money and more quality time with their computers.
Money worries are even making them more picky. While Match.com reported a 50% increase in profile views from November to December, a recent survey of 1,500 members found that 84% of them were "being more selective about first dates in today's economy."
"There's this underlying anxiety I feel energetically everywhere I go," Fields said. "Everybody I meet, there's this tentativeness."
That tentativeness is extending beyond a singleton's willingness to seal the deal and make a first date. It's also manifesting as a hesitancy to reach for the check at the end of an outing.
"Guys aren't jumping on it anymore," Fields said. "It's uncomfortable."
Wendy Rice, a 33-year-old chef from Hollywood, said she'd also experienced an unusually high frequency of daters playing "chicken" with the bill.
"Some guy took me out to dinner at Benihana's and he only brought $100. I was like, 'Hello. You're taking me out,' " said Rice, who, on the Craigslist ad she posted last week, asked, "What happened to date night?" "Another guy took me out and said he forgot his wallet."
Rice didn't believe him.