The most recent report from the Pew Research Center offered a remarkably important, data-based prediction:
“…when today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, a record high share (25%) is likely to have never been married.”
Think about that. There will be a time, in the not-too-distant future, when one out of every four American adults, at age 50, will have been single all their lives! That is a huge number.
The report was titled, “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married,” thereby focusing on the huge numbers of Americans who have currently been single all their lives. That’s significant, but even less meaningful than the prediction that so many will remain single into their 50s and beyond.
The Pew Report has been received in predictable ways. One media story after another has zeroed in on the question, Why can’t all these single people find anyone? For example:
- At Slate, “There aren’t enough marriageable men“
- At the Wall Street Journal, “More Americans forgo marriage as economic difficulties hit home“
- At the New York Times, “Marriage rates keep falling, as money concerns rise“
The assumption seems to be that of course, everyone wants to marry, so the only question is, what’s stopping them?
The authors of the Pew Report, though, were not quite so presumptuous. They asked several questions about the value and desirability of marriage, both at the level of society in general and with regard to individual desires. The participants in the survey were a nationally representative sample of 2,003 Americans 18 and older, questioned in May and June of 2014.
For the societal level question, participants in the survey could choose one of two options:
- Society is better off if marriage and children are a priority; or
- Society is just as well off if people have other priorities.
“Other priorities” edged marriage and family, 50% to 46%. (The other people said both were equally valid or they didn’t know or didn’t want to answer).
At the personal level, participants who had always been single were asked if they hoped to get married. They could answer yes, no, or not sure. Just over half (53%) said yes, they hoped to marry. That’s down from 61%, just four years ago (in 2010). Another 32% said they were not sure, and 13% said no, they do not want to get married.
Those who said they did want to marry or that they were not sure were asked another question: So why aren’t you married? The youngest participants (18-24) most often said they were too young or not ready yet, the middle group (25-34) most often said they were not financially prepared, and the oldest group (35 and older) most often said they had not found what they are looking for.
That stuff doesn’t interest me. I wanted to know about the 13% who did not choose the conventional response (yes, I want to marry) and did not waffle (I’m not sure if I want to marry). Why not ask them why they wanted to stay single? Recruit a bigger sample of participants so more of these people can have a say. Instead, what happened was that anyone who said that no, they did not want to marry, were not asked anything else about their wishes and preferences.
One of the stories written about the Pew Report, Tanvi Misra’s at the Atlantic‘s CityLab, did mention the data on valuing of marriage and the reasons why the people who wanted to be married weren’t married. But Misra did not wonder about the people who do not want to marry, and so far as I can tell, neither did anyone else who wrote about the report.
They should. People who do not want to marry, I think, is a category that is likely to grow. Currently, the ideology insisting that just about everyone wants to marry is far too dominant and uncontested, and the “single at heart” idea is too unknown and unfamiliar, for people to feel confident in saying that no, they do not want to marry. Some will hedge and say they are not sure.
If the report is correct in suggesting that about 25% of today’s young adults are going to reach the age of 50 without having married, then the ideology is not going to remain unchallenged for long. More single people are going to say, “You know, it doesn’t matter how many marriageable men or women are out there. I don’t want to marry. I choose single life.”