Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Eminent Family Scholar Overlooks 67 Million Americans

No singles? No friends? That's not diversity - that's singlism.
Last Sunday, the eminent scholar of family life, Andrew Cherlin, published an op-ed in the Washington Post. The Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, he observed, "spent an inordinate amount of precious convention time introducing us to their loved ones." What really impressed him about those loved ones, though, was not the time devoted to them but their diversity. There were step-families, a pregnant teen, an adopted child, a candidate who was previously divorced, and one who was previously widowed, among others. Maybe someday, he mused, a gay or lesbian candidate will stand on a convention stage and give a grateful shout-out to their same-sex partner.

The diversity of the candidates' loved ones, Cherlin also noted, is a lesson in the diversity of contemporary American households.

Here's another lesson: Cherlin's picture of potential candidates has a hole in it that is 67 million Americans deep. That's the number of adults who are divorced or widowed (and not remarried) or who have always been single, and who do not live with kids. No such persons were represented in Cherlin's tableau.

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Sixty-seven million is not the total number of single people in contemporary American society. To get that number, you need to add another 13 million single parents and another 6 million same-sex or different-sex couples (so, 12 million people) who are cohabiting. That gives you the grand total of 92 million unmarried Americans.

When will we see an unmarried candidate on a Democratic or Republican ticket, or even in an op-ed that is supposedly about diversity?

Cherlin pointed to many household types in his essay, including stepfamilies, single parent households, and even the traditional married-with-children households. Not one of the types he mentioned, though, is as commonplace in America as a household he did not mention - the single-person household.

The "loved ones" Cherlin described are also strikingly narrow in an important way: Each is some variation of a nuclear family member - a parent (or step-parent), a sibling (or half-sibling), or a child.

Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. To many people who are single (and to a good number of married people as well), the loved ones in their lives include friends.

How about a shout-out to them?

In a lengthy online Q & A the next day, no one asked Cherlin why he did not include single people or friends or single-person households in his essay on the diversity of American households and families. Perhaps if someone had, he would have said that his article was about families, and single people who have no kids have no family (even though we all have families of origin).

Still, I'd find that unconvincing. After reviewing the criteria that people use in evaluating their families, Cherlin concluded, "Given the demographic diversity of American families, emotional closeness, not who the Census takers find in your home, has become the new gold standard."

Emotional closeness it is. But there seems to be an implication in there that the people who are emotionally close to us need to reside under the same roof in order to count. To me, that seems like tarnished gold.

So how about a little diversity in this essay about diversity? How about imagining a candidate who is single standing on the stage of a Democratic or Republican convention, and thanking all of the people to whom she or he feels close? Then imagine those people welcomed onto the stage, where the candidate embraces one after another as the crowd roars its approval.

That's what I'd call a United States of America, and a truly diverse nation.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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