Never before have so many people been single – not just in the U.S., but in many places all around the world. Record numbers of adults are not just single for a while; they may be single for life. A Pew Report estimates that by the time young adults in the U.S. today reach the age of 50, about one in four will have been single all their lives. And those who do marry are taking longer than ever before to get there: The median age at which men and women first marry has never been higher. Although the divorce rate is no longer increasing (except among Boomers), rates of remarriage are slipping. All of this adds up to a fairy tale-defying portrait of contemporary life: Americans spend more years of their adult lives not married than married.
The ascendency of single living has left parents, pundits, and even some single people in a panic. But instead of fretting, maybe we should celebrate.
The rise of single people is a for our cities, towns, communities, and our relatives and friends, and neighbors. It is good for people who want to marry – especially if they spend a good long time living single first — and it is good for people who don’t marry. Single people have veered off the one-way road that led to nuclear family living in detached homes in the suburbs. In the process, they have embraced bigger, broader meanings of home, family, child rearing, and sexuality.
Thanks to the open hearts and open minds of people who are single, successive generations will have unprecedented opportunities to pursue the life they choose, rather than one that is prescribed.
What the Rise of Single People Is Good For
1. Our Planet
Single people are greener people. People who live alone or with roommates have shorter commutes to work than couples or people who live with children. Single people are less likely to travel to work in a car, and more likely to get where they need to go by walking or bicycling.
2. Our Cities and Towns
Single people and solo dwellers are the life of their cities and towns. They participate in more civic groups and public events, take more art and music classes, go out to dinner more often, and take part in more informal social activities than people who are married or live with others.
3. Our Communities
Single people volunteer more than married people for community and social service organizations; groups devoted to culture, the arts, hobbies, and sports; environmental and animal care organizations; hospitals and other health organizations; and public safety organizations. Even though single people are less likely to have children than married people are, they volunteer more for educational groups and youth services. Single and currently married people are equally likely to volunteer for political, professional, and international groups; divorced and widowed people volunteer the most for those groups. Only when it comes to religious groups do married people volunteer more than single people.
4. Our Parents, Siblings, Friends, and Neighbors
As parents get older and need more help, they are more likely to get that help from their grown children who are single than those who are coupled. Blacks and whites, sons and daughters, are all more likely to be there for their parents if they are single.
Single people are also especially likely to step up when other people are sick, disabled, or elderly and need the sort of sustained help that goes on for months – even when the people in need are not their relatives.
In everyday life, when no pressing needs are at stake, it is the single people who are more likely to be tending to their relationships with a variety of other people. Compared to married people, they are more likely to encourage, help, and socialize with their friends and neighbors. They are also more likely to visit, support, advise, and stay in touch with their siblings and parents. In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they tend to become more insular, even if they don’t have children.
5. People Who Are Not So Young When They Marry
Studies of people who live alone typically find that most are doing fine; they are not isolated, sad, or lonely. The exceptions tend to be older men who grew up at a time when people married young, and husbands and wives divided the chores in gender-stereotyped ways. Living single longer has the potential to transform today’s men. They are learning for themselves how to keep up with friends and family, be emotionally available – and do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. If they marry and then divorce or become widowed, they may be far more adept at living single than the generations before them. Women, too, may benefit from mastering stereotypically male tasks as they stay single longer.
6. People Who Want to Marry at Any Age
As more people live single, single life will become less stigmatized and more fulfilling. When living single is a real choice, then getting married will be, too. Fewer people will marry as a way of fleeing single life or simply doing what they are expected to do, and more will choose it because it is what they really want.
7. Single People
Reports of the early death of single people have been greatly exaggerated, as have claims that marriage transforms miserable, sickly single people into happy, healthy spouses. In some significant ways, it is the single people who are doing particularly well.
Single people’s greater connectedness to their friends, family, and neighbors may redound to their benefit. People with more diversified relationship portfolios are more satisfied with their lives. In contrast, the insularity of couples who move in together or get married can leave them vulnerable.
People who stay single develop more confidence in their own opinions, and they experience more personal growth and development than people who marry. Single people are more likely to pursue what matters most to them. For example, they value meaningful work more than married people do. They may also have more opportunities to enjoy the solitude that many of them savor.
How Single People Have Opened Our Hearts and Minds
Free of the scripts that govern the lives of many married people, single people write their own life stories. They redefine family, home, parenting, and intimacy in ways that are most consistent with who they really are. In the process, they expand the meanings of a good life for people of all marital and relationship statuses.
8. Redefining Family
Married people often put their spouses at the center of their lives. That’s what they are expected to do, and often it is also what they want to do. Single people are redefining family. The people they care about the most are the people who count, whether they are family only in the traditional sense, or other people, too, such as close friends, ex-partners, mentors, or anyone else who is part of their social convoy, sailing through life alongside them. By valuing more different kinds of people than just a spouse, single people are fashioning a bigger and more elevated place in all our lives for all the people who matter to us.
9. Redefining Home
For many single people, detached single-family homes are not going to offer them the balance between sociability and solitude that they seek. They are instead finding or creating a variety of life spaces. Those who enjoy more togetherness are living under the same roof with others, sometimes in 21st-century variations on traditional arrangements, such as multi-generational households. Others – and not just the very young or the older "Golden Girls" demographic – are living with their friends and other families of choice. Those who cherish their time alone often choose to live alone. Some have committed romantic relationships, but choose to live in places of their own, in a “living apart together” style. Perhaps the most fascinating innovations are in the in-between zone, favored by people who want substantial doses of both solitude and easy sociability. They are moving into places of their own within buildings or neighborhoods where they already have friends or family. Or they are buying duplexes with a close friend. Or they are exploring co-housing communities or pocket neighborhoods.
10. Redefining Parenting
Single people who have children but do not want to raise them single-handedly are also innovating. Single mothers can go to CoAbode to try to find other single mothers with whom they can share a home and a life. Other single people want to raise children with the full support of another parent. Now they can look for just such a partner in parenting, with no expectations for romance or marriage, at places such as Family by Design and Modamily.
11. Redefining Relationships, Sex, Sexuality, and Gender Identity
Thanks in large part to single people, the prescribed script for sex – practice it monogamously and often – is not so standard anymore. (Of course, it was often more of an ideal than a reality.) Now, many other approaches to sex, relationships, sexuality, and gender identity are finding recognition. Our vocabularies are expanding to include asexual, aromantic, demisexual, greysexual, genderqueer, solo polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, and relationship anarchy.
More important, our opportunities to live authentic and fulfilling lives are growing too.
Some context: In April, The Conversation published “More people than ever before are single – and that’s a good thing.” Within days, it was viewed more than a quarter of a million times and picked up by dozens of publications and media outlets. The Conversation wanted me to keep the article short, but I had more to say, so I thought I’d share this more detailed version here.