Living Single Longer: It's a Global Phenomenon

Around the world, people are spending more years living single

Posted Nov 01, 2008

One of my favorite statistics about single life in the United States is that Americans now spend more years of their adult life unmarried than married. Recently, I've been trying to learn more about single life in other nations. I have yet to find any tallies of the number of years spent unmarried vs. married in various countries. However, one demographic trend seems indisputable: The number of years that people spend living single is growing, and the phenomenon has gone global.

It is not just people who stay single who are giving the globe a new look. Even people who eventually do marry are contributing to the worldwide trend of living single for more years of their adult lives. They don't marry as young as they used to, so more and more years of early adulthood are spent single. They are also more likely to divorce than they were in the past.

Stephanie Coontz, who wrote the book on the history of marriage, succinctly summarizes where we now stand: "Everywhere marriage is becoming more optional and more fragile." We are, she proclaims, "in the middle of a world-historic transformation of marriage and family life."

Not-So-Youthful Brides and Grooms

Around the world, the median age at which people first marry - if they marry - is increasing. In the United States, that age is nearly 26 for women (compared to a low of 20 in 1956) and 27.5 for men (compared to 22.5 in 1956). That means that by age 27.5, half of American men have never been married.

Compared to men in all other countries, that puts them near the middle. In United Nations data from 192 countries, the age of first marriage for men, worldwide (as of the 1990s), was 27.2. When only the countries classified as "developed" are considered, then American men look like youthful grooms. Across all developed nations, the age at first marriage for men is nearly 29. (For women, it is 26.1.)

Here are some examples of developed nations in which the age at which people first marry (if they marry at all) has increased by more than 4 years from the 1970s to the 1990s:

Australia
Belgium
Canada
Denmark
France
Finland
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Netherlands
Norway
Sweden
Switzerland
United Kingdom
United States

Even in countries the U.N. classifies as "developing" (rather than developed), many have reported increases of at least 3 years, from the 1970s to the 1990s, in the age at which people first marry. Here are some of them:

Algeria
Bahamas
Guyana
Kuwait
Malaysia
Martinique
Morocco
Qatar
Sudan
Tunisia
Virgin Islands

Divorce: It Is Becoming Increasingly Ordinary

Also contributing to the time that people spend living single around the globe is the increase in the rate of divorce. In three-quarters of all of the countries - both developed and developing - in the U.N. report, the rate of divorce increased from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Single for Life?

Most people marry sooner or later. Many are serial marriers, trying it over and over again. The more difficult question is whether more people are staying single for life. We won't know how many people in the current generation will be lifelong singletons until they have lived their whole lives. We can, though, look at people who have already reached a particular age - say, 50 - and see how many of them have always been single.

In the United States (as of 2007), 12.3% of women in their 40s had always been single. In Australia (according to their 2006 Census report) the numbers are even higher, at 13.5%.

An article on "The demography of the Arab world and the Middle East," based on 1998 data, reports lower rates of lifelong singlehood overall, but considerable variation.

Under 2% of women in their 40s have always been single in:
1.0, Oman
1.3, Yemen
1.6, Iran
1.9, Egypt

More than 5% of women in their 40s have always been single in:
5.1, Morocco
6.0, Kuwait
6.4, Israel
8.2, Palestine

A New Attitude

The singlism in the U.S. that I've described is hardly unique to America. That's not surprising. What has been heartening, though, are some of the creative ways that singles here and in other countries are taking on singlism. I've read, for example, that in Japan there is a derogatory term for 30-something singles that translates to something like "losers" or "loser dogs." In the same spirit as gays and lesbians who co-opted the term "queer," Japanese author Junko Sakai wrote a book titled The Howl of the Loser Dogs, about happy, independent singles; with true poetic justice, it became a best-seller.

Even when the number of singles in a society is relatively small, enlightened attitudes can take hold. An example was described in a previous post in which I interviewed Kay Trimberger about single women in India; they write unapologetically about single life and march in the streets to advocate for reforms.

It is a World-Historic Time to be Single, and We're Living It

Despite the demographic transformations that have swept the world, some things will never change. People will always love other people - sometimes platonically, sometimes romantically. They will always love and nurture the next generation. What will change - what is changing - are the many ways that people reach out to other people and care for children.

I'll give historian Stephanie Coontz the last word: "We can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and caregiving in the modern world."