Americans Just Want to Be Single?

Between ages 25 and 34, married people are in the minority

Posted Sep 30, 2010

The Census Bureau just released new data a few days ago, from the 2009 American Community Survey, and once again, the number of single people has grown. The nation is even more single than it was a year ago, and it looks so very different than it did a few decades ago. I'll run through a few key "singles rule" stats in the first section. Then in the second, I'll mention some of the explanations that have been offered in the media. (The New York Times gets the award for the most gratuitous, baseless singles-bashing account of why people stay single.) I bet you can anticipate the explanation that did not appear in any of the stories I read.


In numbers and percentages, more Americans are single

There are now about 106.4 million Americans, 18 and older, who are divorced or widowed or have always been single. That's up from 104 million the year before. The percentage of Americans who are not married is creeping ever closer to that 50% mark. (See the note at the end about exact percentages.)

The Wall Street Journal puts the 2009 figure for married adults, 18 and older, at 52%. They offer a bit of perspective by noting that in 1960, 72.2% of Americans 18 and older were married.

1-person households continue to outnumber married-with-children households

One of my favorite statistics has been the growth of 1-person households as compared to households comprised of married parents and their children (18 and younger). In 1970, 40.3% of households included mom, dad, and the kids, and only 17.1% were 1-person households. In 2009, as has been true since at least 2000, there are more 1-person households (27.5%) than married-with-children households (20.6%).

Married-couple households continue to be outnumbered by households without a married couple

Counting all households that include a married couple (regardless of whether the households also include kids) still leaves married couple households in the minority. There are more households that do not include a married couple. This has been true for the past 5 years.

Among young adults (25-34), the number who have always been single exceeds the number who are married

Are you at that age when other people start assuming that you should be married by now - say, between 25 and 34 years old? Surprise! In that age group, you outnumber the people who are married.


The economy
I've been reading various articles in the media about the demographic trends I just described - especially the decrease in the number of married people - to see what stories are being offered as explanations. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press all mention the economy. Maybe adults are postponing marriage until they feel more secure financially.

Increasing age at first marriage
The ‘delay' of marriage has been going on for quite some time. The age at which Americans first marry (among those who do marry) has been rising fairly steadily since 1956. So the economy may be contributing to that trend, but the arrow was already pointing upwards when times were good.

High divorce rate
The divorce rate continues to be high, so that contributes to the large number of single people, too. That was noted in several reports.

Increase in cohabiting
An explanation that seems particularly popular is that we can pin the lower rates of marriage on higher rates of cohabitation. Using a beloved media impress-you word, the WSJ declared that the number of cohabiting couples has "skyrocketed." The NYT quoted marriage scholar Andrew Cherlin: "It is a mistake to think of all unmarried people as single," he said. "Lots are living with partners."

We can do better than "lots." The 2009 American Community Survey reports (in Table S1101) that 5.2% of the 113.6 million households are comprised of opposite-sex unmarried couples, and 0.5% include same-sex unmarried couples. That would amount to about 5.9 million opposite-sex cohabiting couples and close to .6 million same-sex cohabiting couples, for a total of about 6.5 million.

Because I'm going to declare that I'm unimpressed by these numbers, I first wanted to see if any reports claimed larger numbers of cohabitors. A USA Today story begins with this paragraph:

"Cohabitation in the USA is at an all-time high, with the number of opposite-sex couples living together rising 13% in a year's time, from 6.7 million in 2009 to 7.5 million this year."

I don't see a report of the number of same-sex cohabiting couples in that story, so I'll assume a very high estimate of 1 million. In total, that would be 8.5 million cohabiting couples. I just don't think that's a big number.

Remember, in 2009 there were 113.6 million households. More than 31 million were 1-person households. Sometimes people hear this and say it is not a fair comparison, and I need to double the number for the cohabiting couples since there are two adults per household. Fine. That brings the number up to about 17 million. That's still way short of 31 million. Consider, too, that the 31 million figure does not include all the single people who live with other people (such as children, friends, relatives) but not with a romantic partner.

The most irresponsible explanation

Sadly, the one explanation with no data whatsoever to back it was published in the New York Times. The paper quoted Joel Greiner, who said that economic considerations were not the real issue: "It is more a fear of intimacy and fear of marriage."

Who's Joel Greiner? He's "the director of counseling for the Journey, an interdenominational church in the St. Louis area." Couples in his congregation tell him they are living together while they save money, but he's decided they're just scared. That's right - he is not citing scientific research. He's not even pointing to what the people in his congregation have told him, except to say that he doesn't believe it. This is what the New York Times uses to perpetuate its singlism. Singles are just scared of intimacy. Some guy said so.

(For previous discussions of this non-issue, check out Times reporter thinks single women fear intimacy; I'm afraid he's wrong, and How to make even good findings sound bad.)

The explanation no publication suggested

So let's see, is there any other possible reason why more and more Americans are living single? Has it occurred to any scholars or reporters that it is increasingly possible to live a full, complete, and meaningful life as a single person, and so a growing number of Americans are opting to do so? No! Apparently, the thought never occurred to them.

For that, you'd have to go to, say, someone whose thoughts about single life are not prefabricated. Take David, for example. He sent me one of these stories with a note about the low rate of marriage: "Why can't it be because people simply prefer being single?"

[Two notes: First, thanks to David, Suzanne, and my younger brother and a friend of his, all of whom passed along relevant links. Thanks, too, to Thomas F. Coleman for compiling the latest data here. And now, a day later, let me add a note of thanks to Karen, who sent me this link to an NPR story that also points to cohabitation as a key explanation. Second, when you see different estimates of the same statistic, that doesn't necessarily mean that one of them is wrong. There are different surveys, based on different numbers of people, collected at different points in time. Also, at what age do you want to start counting married and single people? I prefer starting at 18, but many Census Bureau reports start at 15. Where do you want to include the people who are separated - with the married, with the unmarried, or just set them aside? All of those issues and more can make the data wobble.]