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The Age of Singlehood

Social forces have combined to produce a wave of single adults.

Key points

  • Changing attitudes and social movements have contributed to the rise of single adults in the U.S. and other Western countries.
  • Cohabitation has become commonly accepted, and more people are choosing to marry later or not at all.
  • Even when individuals wish to marry, they face obstacles including economic instability and discrimination.
 Rcragun/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons, no change
United States Marriage and Divorce Rates, 1960-2011
Source: Rcragun/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons, no change

The wave of individualism that is leading to unprecedented levels of singles across the world can be attributed to many changes that began to take hold in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Mass urbanization, increased longevity, the communications revolution, and the women’s rights movement all have contributed to conditions that prepared the ground for the Second Demographic Transition and the increase in the number of singles around the world [1, 2].

These trends were most prominent and had the largest impact in the developed West [3], and as such, it is unsurprising that the largest prevalence of singles today is to be found in Europe and the United States. While singles have been historically marginalized in the West, they are currently the fastest-growing relationship demographic in many Western countries [4].

The trends toward single living were already noted in the 1970s when social factors pushed people away from marriage and towards either cohabitation or a single lifestyle [5], particularly due to changing attitudes and social movements in the ’60s and ’70s [6]. In the U.S., for example, already in the 1990 census, cohabitation with a partner who is not a spouse was included as a possible category [7].

 BlacknoseDace/Wikimedia Commons
World Map of Age at First Marriage
Source: BlacknoseDace/Wikimedia Commons

Today, as values, economics, and gender patterns have continued to shift, a record proportion of adults in the U.S. and across the West have never married [8]. Adults are marrying late, cohabitation is more common, and the attitudes of the public reflect a decline in the status of marriage. Moreover, in the U.S., approximately one-quarter of those who have never married are predicted to never get married [9].

Changes in demographics and within certain populations are also driving the changes in the West. For example, increased longevity has led to higher proportions of elderly citizens living alone. This is since the elderly are more likely to be widowed and live alone for more years [10, 11].

Yet the rise of singles is not unique to the elderly; young people experiencing economic hardship can have a variety of potential effects on relationship formation. On the one hand, young people tend to spend their prime dating years living with their parents [12]. On the other hand, where there is economic security, there seems to be a decreased financial motivation to get married, thereby also increasing the proportion of singles. In Sweden, for instance, the large welfare state and social democratic policies ensure that individuals can move into their own apartment when they finish high school and guarantee that they live independently of others, at least financially.

In addition, the number of middle-aged singles is also on the rise, fueled by a higher number of divorces and changing attitudes that make the choice of not marrying more acceptable [13].

These changes may also be explained by increased immigration of foreign-born adults, increased higher education, and general economic hardship across generations, whereby many choose to delay getting married for fear of inability to support a partner or a family or as a result of extended co-residence with parents [14].

Sadly, discrimination in incarceration in the West has also contributed to reduced rates of marriage. The high rate of black men in prison in the United States led to a situation wherein for every 100 non-married women aged 25-34, there were only 92 unmarried men [15]. Many women are also reluctant to commit to a relationship with someone who has served a prison sentence, deepening the effects of the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities on potential relationship formation.

All of the above would indicate that the increase in the number of singles is a combination of a variety of factors. These social forces are just the tip of the iceberg and are leading to an age of singlehood.

Learn more in Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.


1. Lesthaeghe, R., The second demographic transition in Western countries: An interpretation. Gender and family change in industrialized countries, 1995: p. 17-62.

2. Van de Kaa, D.J., The second demographic transition revisited: theories and expectations. NIDI/CBGS PUBLICATION, 1994(30): p. 81-126.

3. Klinenberg, E., Going solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone. 2012: Penguin.

4. Budgeon, S., Couple culture and the production of singleness. Sexualities, 2008. 11(3): p. 301-325.

5. Stein, P.J., Singlehood: An alternative to marriage. Family Coordinator, 1975. 24(4): p. 489-503.

6. Thornton, A. and D. Freedman, Changing attitudes toward marriage and single life. Family Planning Perspectives, 1981. 14(6): p. 297-303.

7. Casper, L.M. and P.N. Cohen, How does POSSLQ measure up? Historical estimates of cohabitation. Demography, 2000. 37(2): p. 237-245.

8. Wang, W. and K.C. Parker, Record share of Americans have never married: As values, economics and gender patterns change. 2014, Washington DC: Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends Project.

9. Rainie, H. and M. Madden, Not looking for love: The state of romance in America. 2006: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

10. Kramarow, E.A., The elderly who live alone in the United States: Historical perspectives on household change. Demography, 1995. 32(3): p. 335-352.

11. Ruggles, S., Living arrangements of the elderly in America, 1880-1980. 1996: Berlin: de Gruyter.

12. Fry, R., A rising share of young adults live in their parents’ home. Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. Pew Social Trends, 2013. 1.

13. Jamieson, L., F. Wasoff, and R. Simpson, Solo-living, demographic and family change: The need to know more about men. Sociological Research Online, 2009. 14(2): p. 5.

14. Stone, J., A. Berrington, and J. Falkingham, The changing determinants of UK young adults' living arrangements. Demographic Research, 2011. 25: p. 629-666.

15. Staples, R., Beyond the black family: The trend toward singlehood. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 1979. 3(3): p. 150.

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