The Economy: A Single Person's Vulnerability that is Real

Singlism is especially difficult during tough economic times

Posted Oct 07, 2008

A week or so ago, I was a featured guest on a radio call-in show. The host invited listeners to ask me anything about singles, singlism, or single life. I was scheduled to take calls for a half-hour.

One of the first calls was about workplace and economic issues facing people who are single, and off we went. Callers said they were asked to cover for married co-workers. They noted that they got last dibs on vacation dates. They described married co-workers and bosses who expected the single people to work during holidays so married people could spend those special times with their spouse and family.

Then they started in on issues of pay and perks and benefits. An enlightened married man called in and said that when he got married, his boss, in a private conversation, told him that he was going to increase his pay because he was now married. The reason I describe this man enlightened is because of the point he made on the air - that he was not any less valuable, motivated, or talented a worker when he was single.

The host was surprised when I told him that the married caller's experience was not unusual. In researching Singled Out, I found study after study showing that married men are paid more than single men, even when they have the same seniority and achievements. In fact, in one study in which the participants were identical twins, the married twin made an average of 26% more in pay than the single twin.

The calls kept coming. The producer asked me to stay for another segment.

Callers wanted to talk about disparities in benefits - married workers, for example, can often put their spouse on their health care plan at a reduced rate, while single people doing the same work side-by-side with the married person cannot put a sibling or a parent or a nephew or a close friend on their plan. They weren't happy that their married colleagues' Social Security benefits go to their spouse after they die, whereas the single workers' benefits go back into the system.

The phone lines continued to light up. The producer asked if I could continue with the show. We started in on all the many ways in which married people pay less than single people and get more - as with the auto insurance rates, health club memberships, professional subscriptions, vacation packages, and all the rest of the deals for which two married people each pay less than one single person. (In my book, I describe these in a section titled "Cheaper by the Couple.")

Then there are the little things. Supermarkets, for example, reward super-sizers, as when shoppers get to pay less per unit the more they buy. For perishable items, this can be a complete-lose situation for singles - they are just not going to use all that food before it goes bad. Even for non-perishables, these deals are no deal at all if you don't have the extra space to store the stuff. (There is an interesting public-health irony to these pricing practices. At a time when Americans probably weigh more than they ever have before, the buy-more, pay-less promotions encourage them to keep piling on the pounds.)

Finally, the producer ended my part of the show, even though callers were still lined up waiting to talk. I don't think we got through all the relevant economic issues that I described in Singled Out or in another post on this blog, but it was clear that the topic had struck a nerve.

I've done many, many radio call-in shows over the years, and, with one exception, the topic of singles has always drawn listeners to their phones. (In the one dud, the host mistakenly introduced me as a therapist - not sure if that was the reason.) This time seemed different. The host was surprised, too - he said he never expected so many calls.

Of course, any individual event like this can just be something random, but my guess is that something else was involved. Tough economic times are difficult for almost everyone, but they can be especially challenging for people who are single.

There are lots of reasons for this. Most obviously, single people do not have a spouse's job or income to fall back on if their own financial situation falters. Singles who live alone cannot take advantage of the "economies of scale" enjoyed by those who live with others and can draw from several paychecks to pay one rent or mortgage and one set of utility bills. Also, single people are targets of economic discrimination that is legal - it is written right into our laws and public policies (as I've described in Chapter 12 of Singled Out).

So what's a single person - or any person concerned with fairness - to do? One possibility is to speak up. A graduate student (someone I don't know) e-mailed me yesterday to say that reading my book motivated her to complain to her local grocery store about sales practices that favored married people. Another student in a Lifelong Learning course that I taught sent me a hand-written note telling me about her experience challenging a restaurant deal that singled out people who are single.

I also hear from single people who tell me about their experiences of singlism in the workplace, and their efforts to deal with them. From those people - as well as from published research - I've become very attuned to the risks of speaking out. People who hear such complaints about singlism, even when stated very politely, are not often receptive to them. In fact, they can be downright hostile.

I've been especially intrigued by nasty reactions I've gotten from people in academia, many of whom seem, in other ways, to be on the forefront of fairness. Some even study topics related to discrimination. The problem, I think, is that they also see themselves as especially fair and just people. When first faced with the suggestion that they may be treating single people inappropriately, they are startled - and angry.

I think the way around this involves education and consciousness-raising. Most people just don't know much about the real discriminations faced by single Americans. Once the topic becomes part of our public conversation - in the media, in the classroom, in political discourse, and in our everyday lives - then individual experiences will not be so personal. They will be part of a societal issue, a matter of what we want to be as a people and a nation.