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Are Single People Less Materialistic?

Singles frequently hold significantly different attitudes to money and careers.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Who Works for Money
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Throughout the twentieth century, globalization and market harmonization caused increasing competition and pushed many industries to seek ways to raise workers’ utilization and enhance their effectiveness.1 This pressure, along with the increasing pace of work, placed unreasonable demands on workers, negatively shaping their personal lives and mental and physical health.2

Recently, however, we have witnessed a backlash against these trends that have catalyzed a demand to change the nature of work.3 The importance of work to self-fulfillment is being emphasized and the idea of having a job is becoming less appealing than a protean career or calling. Individuals are increasingly unwilling to work hard without a feeling of self-fulfillment.

Singles are more meaning-seekers

Unmarried, single people frequently hold values synonymous with a less-materialistic approach to money and careers that not only leave them better poised to deal with financial challenges, but also lead to life choices that increase happiness.4

Singles are also less likely to fall into debt than partnered, cohabiting, and married people,5 and therefore will more likely avoid the happiness-reducing consequences of debt. It may be that singles end up being less materialistic than those who eventually get married,6 or that more materialistic people are more likely to enter long-term committed relationships.7

In either case, it can be clearly argued that, along with the propensity to be less material-focused, singles more strongly value the meaningfulness of their work than others. Singles tend to seek work that is interesting, challenging, and more fulfilling.4, 8

Opponents of this standpoint argue that singles who are interested in their work do not actually love what they are doing, but rather are convincing themselves that this is the truth in order to ‘deal’ with the reality of being single. Alternatively, others say that singles—especially women—who claim to seek high levels of fulfillment from their jobs are simply compensating for the fact that they have succeeded in the most important task in life, that of finding a spouse and starting a family.

Empirical studies, however, show this to be untrue. In order to test the feasibility of the aforementioned claims, researchers investigated teenagers’ attitudes towards work when they were still in high school—when they were not married.9 At the start of the study, 709 high school seniors in Minnesota were asked what was important to them in their future careers, and what balance of extrinsic (i.e., financial) and intrinsic (i.e., ideological) incentives shaped their decision-making process.

Extrinsically motivated individuals cared mostly about job stability, pay, and opportunities for advancement, while intrinsically motivated individuals placed more emphasis on meaningful work, the opportunity to use and develop skills, and exhibit responsibility.

Nine years later, at ages 26 to 27, the participants' relationship statuses were documented. The results indicated a clear relationship between work-related values and the tendency to get married, with intrinsically motivated individuals more likely to be single and less likely to have children than those who were extrinsically motivated.

In addition, the participants’ work-related values were reassessed at this point. The single participants valued meaningful work and gained more intrinsically from their occupations than married participants.

The implication here is that even if we take into account that those who placed an emphasis on intrinsic motivation in high school were less likely to be married, those who married by the age of 26 to 27 were independently less likely to value meaningful work than the singles (other demographic factors such as education level, income, and employment status were controlled for).

My own studies show that satisfaction at work is essential in explaining the making of singles with higher levels of well-being.4 Happy singles, especially long-term, never-married happy singles, raise their well-being by seeking self-fulfillment through their careers rather than through creating nuclear families.

In particular, my statistical analyses of almost three hundred thousand adult participants of the European Social Survey in the years 2002 to 2018, age 30 and above, show that job satisfaction contributes to the overall happiness of singles more than married individuals. It is important to note that “job satisfaction” in this instance does not mean job convenience or a hefty paycheck. I exclude those factors in the analysis. Job satisfaction carries a more profound connotation in this sense and relates to deriving meaning and self-fulfillment from work.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that people who get married spend far less time in work-related pursuits such as unions and professional societies that are for their own personal benefit than do singles. Singles, in this respect, have better opportunities to manifest their interests and increase their personal fulfillment by participation in groups, clubs, and organizations that not only enhance their lives professionally but also socially.

Elyakim Kislev is the author of the books Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.


1 Raymond A Noe, John R Hollenbeck, Barry Gerhart, and Patrick M Wright, Gaining a Competitive Advantage (Irwin: McGraw-Hill, 2003); Beverly J Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

2 Prudence L Carter, Keepin'it Real: School Success Beyond Black and White (Oxford University Press, 2005).

3 Amy Wrzesniewski, Clark McCauley, Paul Rozin, and Barry Schwartz, 'Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People's Relations to Their Work', Journal of Research in Personality, 31 (1997), 21-33.

4 Elyakim Kislev, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019); ———, 'Happiness, Post-Materialist Values, and the Unmarried', Journal of Happiness Studies, 19 (2018), 2243-65.

5 Matt Hurst, 'Debt and Family Type in Canada', Canadian Social Trends (2011), 38-47.

6 Aric Rindfleisch, James E Burroughs, and Frank Denton, 'Family Structure, Materialism, and Compulsive Consumption', Journal of consumer research, 23 (1997), 312-25.

7 Bella DePaulo, and Wendy Morris, 'Singles in Society and in Science', Psychological Inquiry, 16 (2005), 57-83.

8 Bella DePaulo, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (New York: Macmillan, 2007).

9 Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, 'Family Roles and Work Values: Processes of Selection and Change', Journal of Marriage and Family, 67 (2005), 352-69.

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