As the number of single people continues to grow, now reaching somewhere around half of all adults in the U.S., it is getting harder and harder to insist that all these single people are sad and lonely and bemoaning their status. There are now well over 100 million single people. (I’ll address the question of whether there are really more single people than married ones in the U.S. in a later post.) It is time to stop assuming that they all want to know what they did “wrong” to end up single or how they can be “fixed up,” as if they are somehow broken. Sure, some people would like to be married. But plenty actually love their single lives and intend to remain single. I’ve named this blog, “Single at Heart,” after those people.
Even the single people who eventually want to marry are rarely just wallowing in self-pity about their single status. Increasingly, they want to live their single lives fully and joyfully, and take advantage of every opportunity that single life offers.
So what is it that single life does offer to those open to embracing it?
In the Netherlands, a publication called Individual and Society is about to publish its 100th issue. They have a theme – the state of single people around the world. They have asked people in different countries to write brief overviews of single people in their country, which they will translate into Dutch. They asked me to write about singles in the U.S. Below is the first draft of what I submitted to them.
How Many Adults in the United States Are Not Married?
The number of single people in the United States has been growing for decades. In 1970, only 28 percent of all American adults, 18 and older, were single (divorced, widowed, or always-single). By 2013, that number had increased to 44 percent.
Most single people, 62 percent, have always been single. Another 24 percent are divorced, and the other 14 percent are widowed.
How Do Single (Unmarried) Americans Live?
The vast majority of unmarried Americans are not living with a romantic partner. Of the 105 million Americans 18 and older who were not married in 2013, only 14 million of them were cohabiting.
The popularity of living alone has increased greatly over time. In 1970, 17 percent of all American households were comprised of one person. By 2013, 27 percent of all households were 1-person households; that equates to 34 million Americans living alone.
Of the 105 million unmarried Americans, only 34 million live alone and only 14 million live with a romantic partner. That means that most single Americans live with other people such as friends, family members, roommates, or some combination.
What Is the Political Status of Single People in the United States?
Single people are targets of systematic discrimination in the United States. Just on the federal level, there are more than 1,000 laws affording benefits and protections only to people who are legally married. Many of these are tax benefits. Single people are also disadvantaged in their old-age pensions (Social Security). Single people cannot give their Social Security benefits to anyone else when they die; and, no other person can give their Social Security benefits to …
In my previous post, “Why are you single? International edition,” I described what single people in Poland had to say about why they were living single. The research came from Julita Czernecka’s book, Single and the City. In her research, the author interviewed 60 financially stable college graduates between the ages of 27 and 41 who had not been in a serious romantic relationship for at least two years, had never been married and had no children.
Here I want to share more about the lives of single people in Poland, and add some of my own observations about how their experiences seem to compare to those of single people in the U.S.
By now, you have probably seen far too many of those “why are you single” articles. Way too often, the authors treat singlehood as a disease that needs to be cured, and they tell you what you did wrong that led you to get (or stay) sick. I’ve made fun of those singles-bashing lists and also offered some more positive takes on single life in The Real Reasons for Living Single.
In addition to the disease-mentality, there is something else that is troubling about those articles – they are almost always just the opinions of some outside observer. They rarely ask single people what they think about their single lives.
Happily, that has changed with a new typology offered by the Polish sociologist Julita Czernecka, author of Single and the City. She asked a select group of Polish single people – 30 men and 30 women – to talk about their single lives. The people she interviewed are not a representative sample of Polish singles, so her results are more suggestive than definitive. I think they provide a good alternative, though, to people who offer nothing but their own opinion as to why other people are single.
The 60 singles Czernecka interviewed fit the profile of people she was most interested in learning about. They were financially stable college graduates between the ages of 27 and 41 who had not been in a serious romantic relationship for at least two years. None had ever been married and none had children, but they were all still old enough to have children if they ever wanted to.
Here are the 5 types of single people she found. (She did not say how many were in each category.)
[Bella's intro: There are some events I would never want to attend, such as ones that pose the question, "Why is everyone still single," as if that's a bad thing. Fortunately, the wonderful Kim Calvert went to one iteration of "The Great Love Debate" so we don't have to. Even more fortunately, Kim brings her much more enlightened attitude to the task of reporting back to us. Thanks, Kim! Readers, you can find out more about Kim in the "About the Author" section at the end. And one more thing: If you want to know the real reasons for living single, check this out.]
Writings about single life – both popular and academic – focus overwhelmingly on women. Because marriage, traditionally, is supposed to be more important to women than to men, in theory more central to their identities and their happiness, single life should be especially problematic for women. Research begs to disagree about the happiness presumption, but no matter. Angst-filled writings about women living single continue to proliferate.
Alongside the tired old tales of those “poor” single women is a counter-narrative. It is one of strength, fulfillment, and independence. That story is often told of single women who live alone.
How many people must that mass murderer have fooled about who he was and what he was about to do before he went on a rampage and killed six people and injured many more? It happened just outside of the campus of UC Santa Barbara, the university I’ve been associated with for nearly 14 years.
I have to admit that when I heard that law enforcement personnel (four sheriff’s deputies, a police officer, and a dispatcher) had been sent to talk to the killer less than a month before his killing spree, my jaw dropped. The killer’s mother and therapist had both become disturbed by the videos he had been posting, and contacted the police to ask them to check up on him.
“Make Room for Singles in Teaching and Research” (also available here) was the title of an article I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education, together with sociologist Kay Trimberger and law professor (and now Dean of UCLA Law School) Rachel Moran. When the Chronicle published the article, it was in a special issue on diversity.
I think that was apt. We need a singles perspective in academia in the same way we need the perspectives of other groups such as women and people of color. Without these different points of view, we end up asking a limited set of questions and coming up with a narrow set of predictable answers. We miss some things entirely and see too much of other things.
The results of 277 studies from around the world showed that after age 30, the number of friends in our social networks shrinks. Other social networks – except for family networks – tend to get smaller, too. That’s what I discussed previously. But what should we make of these findings?
One of the articles here at Single-at-Heart that attracted a lot of interest was called What’s really difficult about turning 30: It’s harder to make friends. In it, I discussed a story by a reporter on why it is harder to make friends after 30. The story was an intriguing one in some ways (though also, as I discussed, marred by singlism), but the reporter did not address an even more fundamental question: Do we really have fewer friends after 30, or was that just true of the particular people who were interviewed for the article?