The Growing Power of Single People, in 10 Important Trends
10 reasons to celebrate Unmarried and Single Americans Week.
Posted Sep 14, 2019
Single people are a force, not just in the U.S., but in many nations all around the world. Unmarried and Single Americans Week, observed during the third full week of September (Sept 15-21 in 2019), is a celebration of single people’s growing numbers and accomplishments.
Recent years have been, in many ways, very good ones for single people, as evidenced by 10 significant trends. A decade ago, I would have had little grounds for making any of these statements, except for the first.
1. The Number of Single People Is Growing in the U.S. and All Around the World
Findings from the Current Population Survey show that in the U.S., there are now 117.9 million adults, 18 and older, who are divorced or widowed or have been single all their lives. That’s up from 115.8 million a year ago.
The Census Bureau has been marking Singles Week for years. Their 2019 press release included graphs of the percentages of men and women in four different marital statuses, from 1993 through 2018. The biggest changes are in the percentage of people who are married—that’s been going down, down, down, and in the percentage of people who have always been single—that’s been going up, up, up. The trends for people who are divorced or widowed are flatter.
The rise of single people is a worldwide phenomenon. A recent report from the United Nations documents the global increase in the number of people who get to their late 40s without ever marrying, as well as the increasing age at which people first marry, among those who do marry.
Most single people do not live alone, but globally, a substantial number do. In fact, worldwide, the same proportion of households are comprised of just one person as of just a couple (with no kids or anyone else)—13 percent. Another 8 percent of all households are single-parent families.
2. Research Is Documenting the Strengths of Single People and the Benefits of Single Life
In the popular imagination, single people are sad and become ever more miserable as they get older. Research shows just the opposite. Single people are typically quite happy, and between the ages of 40 and 85, those who have stayed single become more and more satisfied with their lives.
Also getting decimated is the stereotype of single people as isolated, alone, or unattached. Dozens of studies have documented the number, strength, diversity, and meaningfulness of the social ties of people who are single.
Such is the appeal of single life that even when conservative institutions (such as Brigham Young University) or organizations invested in romantic coupling (such as Tinder) conduct surveys, they are not getting the matrimaniacal results that they perhaps expected. Instead, they find that many people no longer think marriage or children are necessary components of a fulfilling life. And they uncover very positive attitudes toward single life, especially among women.
3. The Good News About Singlehood Is Getting Serious Media Attention
The good news about singlehood has leaped from the stodgy pages of academic journals into the limelight of the popular press. A new genre of media stories has emerged, attesting to the benefits of living single.
Here is just a sampling of headlines from the past year or so:
- The surprising benefits of being single (Yahoo)
- The unexpected benefits of being single, according to experts (Oprah magazine)
- Being single may make you happier (Marie Claire)
- Science-based reasons you’re better off single (Insider)
- 7 amazing things I’ve been able to experience because I’m single (Your Tango)
- 9 ways being single can improve your life (Time magazine)
- 5 health benefits of being single (US News)
- 27 undeniable benefits of being single (BuzzFeed)
- 7 unexpected benefits of being single, according to experts (Bustle)
- 9 surprising benefits of being single that no one has told you before (Life Hack)
4. The Important People and Experiences in the Lives of Single People Are Getting Recognized
The kinds of people and experiences that make a single life so meaningful and rewarding are also getting recognized.
Friendship and social ties
Friendship is getting acknowledged in ways once reserved for cooing couples. An article in the New York Times proclaimed:
“Films as different as 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,' 'Booksmart' and 'Last Black Man in San Francisco' follow the arc of deep friendships just as rom-coms do.”
The prestigious Atlantic magazine now has a regular column on friendships. In “The Friendship Files,” Julie Beck brings us profiles of inspiring, quirky, lasting, loving friendships.
Also in the Atlantic, Mandy Len Catron drew from the growing body of research to argue that single people are better than married people at maintaining their social connections. Her article was called, “What you lose when you gain a spouse.”
Solitude, too, is having its day. It is not as if the onslaught of stories about loneliness has slowed, but now we are hearing more about the rewards of spending time alone and the kinds of people who most appreciate the time they have to themselves. Here at this Living Single blog at Psychology Today, the posts I write about the kinds of people who like being alone are almost always among the most popular.
Beyond the nuclear family living
In researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I explored a variety of life-spaces that people are creating now that nuclear families comprise fewer than one out of every five households. Since then, arrangements such as cohousing, friends raising children together, and couples living apart together have attracted even more attention.
Beyond sex and romance
One of the stereotypes of single people is that they don’t get any. In fact, though, the gap between married and single people is narrowing, and by some measures, single people are having more sex. What is even more important, though, is that sex and romance are losing their grip on our understandings of who we are and what matters.
The frequency of sex has decreased so markedly among the young that Atlantic magazine featured a cover story called “The Sex Recession.” Asexuality, a term that once elicited quizzical looks, has made it into our common parlance. And more and more people are recognizing that aromanticism is also a thing.
Single people who do have kids and single and coupled people who do not
Sadly, the bashing of single parents and their children is continuing. But increasingly, it is countered by more affirming narratives. Our understandings have become more accurate and more sophisticated.
The growing number of adults, whether single or coupled, who do not have kids are also attracting the kind of attention that does not stereotype or stigmatize. Just recently, for example, a landmark study was published, documenting different pathways followed by women who never have children.
5. Single People Are Finding Each Other, for Friendship and Not (Just) Dating
The international Community of Single People, which started in 2015, now has more than 3,800 members. It is a place for discussing every aspect of the single life, except dating or any other attempts to become unsingle. Although it started as an online community and mostly still is, more than a few members have met in person, enjoyed outings together, and become friends.
6. Affirming Books About Singlehood Are Proliferating
People who want a break from marriage plots and other matrimaniacal writings are in luck. Never before have there been so many new memoirs, books grounded in social science, and even some novels and children’s books that offer affirming perspectives on the single life.
Two of my favorites from the past year are Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, by fellow Psychology Today blogger Elyakim Kislev, and No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone, a memoir and cultural commentary by Keturah Kendrick. Here’s my guide to owning single life, as told through contemporary memoirs, and here’s just one example of why I so appreciate Happy Singlehood.
7. The Unapologetically Single Can Find Great Talks for Them
Talks for the unapologetically single people are not as plentiful as books. But you can find a dozen or so thoughtful and inspiring TED talks or TED-like talks here.
8. Academics Are Starting to Identify as Scholars of Single Life
When I first started studying singlehood, I had a hard time finding any other academics who identified as scholars of single life. Now we have esteemed scholars, such as Kris Marsh, Kinneret Lahad, Elyakim Kislev, and Adriana Savu, who are committed to the study of singlehood. I don’t know whether Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian identify as scholars of single people, but their research on greedy marriage has been more influential than anyone else’s in showing that single life integrates people into society, rather than isolating them from it.
9. Systematic Attempts to Glorify Marriage and Stigmatize Singles Have Been Exposed
It is not by chance that the ideology glorifying marriage is so pervasive and so resistant to facts. In “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” Family Story exposed the longstanding, systematically-implemented, and generously-funded agenda of the marriage fundamentalists. For those who care about justice for all, it may well be one of the most important documents of our time.
10. Singlism Is Getting Recognized, Big Time
I am writing this blog post in celebration of Singles Week, so I am purposefully focusing on the victories. But even in the realm of the bad stuff, there is good news to report. Some of the most lethal forms of singlism—the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against singles—have been documented this year.
In judgments about who deserves a transplant, and in decisions about recommending the most aggressive forms of treatment for cancer, people who are not married have been shown to be at risk of what Joan DelFattore calls “Death by Stereotype.” Of course, it is not good news that this is happening, but it is very good news that these biases are getting recognized, including in publications as prestigious as the New England Journal of Medicine.
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