“Rising share of U.S. adults are living without a spouse or partner,” declared an influential report released by the Pew Research Center. According to the report, 38% of adults in the U.S. between the ages of 25 and 54 are not married and not living with a romantic partner. (The percentage would be even higher if young and older adults were included, too.) The report also documented ways in which single men are falling behind partnered men economically.
The report unleashed a torrent of singlism (the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people) and matrimania (the glorifying of marriage and coupling). At PBS, for example, declarations that single people were “failing in life” or showing “arrested development” were tossed about. At Time magazine, unnamed sociologists were said to believe that “having a partner suggests having a future.”
I have been devoting the past several decades of my life to pushing back against such disparaging narratives of single life. In their place, I have been providing a more affirming account of what it means to be single, one that is grounded in research, not prejudice.
Half of unpartnered Americans are not interested in finding a partner
Discussions of the Pew Report often obsess about romantic prospects. If men are falling behind economically, will women still want to marry them? Don’t they want men who are at least in the same league as them? And if the women don’t find suitable men, horrors! They may end up staying single.
Last year, Pew published a report about the romantic interests of single people – those who were not married, not living with a romantic partner, and not in a committed romantic relationship. Based on a national, random sampling of Americans 18 and older, they found that 50 percent of those single people are not interested in a committed romantic relationship, and they are not even interested in a date.
All that handwringing about marriageability is of little relevance to people who just aren’t interested in marrying or even dating.
For many, single life is a great life, better than any alternative
People who fearmonger about the growing number of single people have an old-fashioned view of single life as a sad fate that some people are stuck with. It is true that some single people long to be coupled, but as I just showed, not nearly as many as our prevailing narratives would suggest.
For people who are “Single at Heart,” single life is their best life – it is more joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful than any alternative. For them, and even for some who love living single but are still open to coupling, single life offers profound rewards.
Discussions of the declining economic fortunes of single men have missed some important points
Of course, the declining economic fortunes of single people is a bad thing. Single men, especially, have fallen behind partnered men in their rates of employment and in the amount that they are paid. Those findings set off a spate of predictable proclamations about the supposed superiority of married men as workers.
I looked into that for Singled Out and found that married men put more time into the kind of work that pays off -- for them. They work more hours than single men. But if they divorce and then remarry, they work fewer hours than they did when they were divorced. Single men put more hours into the kinds of work that has the potential to benefit many other people besides themselves. For example, they give more of their time to farm organizations, unions, and professional societies.
More recent research, published in 2020, shows that the lower rates of employment and the lesser pay of single men is likely attributable at least in part to discrimination against them, rather than any greater deservingness of married men. In a study in which the single and married men had identical credentials and characteristics, employers wanted to interview more of the married men, and they wanted to pay them more, too. It is also possible that one of the reasons married men work more hours (when they do) is that employers are giving them more hours when single men wanted more hours, too.
Discussions of the living arrangements of single people have missed some important points
Among the evidence assembled for the supposedly worsening fates of single men is that more unpartnered men than partnered men are living with their parents. For single men who are living with their parents and wish they weren’t, that is a bad thing.
It is wrong, though, to shame anyone for living with their parents. Today’s young adults and their parents often genuinely enjoy each other’s company. It’s not the 1970s anymore. And for some groups and in some places, living with parents is highly valued.
Discussions of the growing numbers of single men living with their parents start from the assumption that the parents are supporting their grown children. And sometimes they are. It is also true, though, that single people – including single men – are more likely than married people to provide care when their aging parents need it. That’s true of Black sons and daughters as well as White ones.
Some single women who are living with their parents are mothers. Their kids are doing remarkably well. A study of more than 11,000 teenagers from 10 different kinds of households showed that the teens living with their single mother and at least one grandparent did at least as well as the teens of married parents in graduating from high school, enrolling in college, not smoking, and not drinking. If their moms had always been single, they did even better than the teens with married parents.
People who are single are not just more likely to live with their parents; they are also more likely than partnered people to live alone. As I explained here previously, people who live alone have special strengths that are rarely recognized. For single men especially, who are living alone longer than the men of previous generations, that experience can be transformational, offering significant payoffs for them later in life. For example, they can learn the kinds of skills that will serve them well if they marry and then become widowed or divorced, skills that men in previous generations never developed if they never lived alone.
The power of single people is growing
In celebration of Singles Week in 2019, I documented the growing power of single people, in 10 important trends. That rising clout begins with their growing numbers and continues with the ways in which single people, and the important people in their lives, are commanding more positive attention and more respect. Those trends are unlikely to reverse anytime soon.