Recently, Bloomberg News declared that for the first time, more than half of American adults are single – they are either divorced or widowed or they have always been single. In numbers, that amounts to 124.6 million people; in percentages, it is 50.2 percent. The report inspired an outpouring of “what does it all mean” opinion pieces.
Around the same time, the Census Bureau was releasing its annual “Facts for Features” report to mark Unmarried and Single Americans Week, September 21-27. That report claimed that 105 million people, or 44 percent of all American adults, are single.
So which is it? And does it matter?
Look even more exhaustively, and you may find even more estimates that differ from these two. There are many ways to get different answers, and that doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong in their research or reporting.
The biggest difference between the data mentioned in Bloomberg and the data from the “Facts for Features” report is that the former started counting single and married people at age 16, and the latter, at age 18. Since relatively few people marry at ages 16 or 17, estimates that include those teens will come to the conclusion that there are more single people than will estimates that start counting at age 18.
There are different surveys, taken at different points in time, sometimes with slightly different methodologies, and those differences can also result in different estimates of the number of single people. The Census Bureau conducts its most comprehensive surveys every 10 years, but in between other, smaller surveys continue (such as the Current Population Survey). Other decisions also matter – for example, are you going to put separated people in the married group or the unmarried group?
I tend to be conservative in my estimates, so I like to start counting at age 18. By that measure, single people do not yet outnumber married ones. There does seem to be something significant about becoming, say, 50.1 percent of the population as opposed to 49.9 percent. Americans are big believers in “majority rules.” As a singles advocate and activist, I’d love to say that Singles Rule, at least in this numerical sense. But I’ll hold off a while longer.
What is not in dispute, no matter how you count, is that the number and percentage of single people has been growing steadily for years. And if your metric is decades rather than years, the increase has been dramatic. In 1970, for example, there were 38 million Americans, 18 and older, who were single, or 28 percent. Now, there are 105 million, or 44 percent.
That huge surge in the number of single people has started to make a dent. Our cultural conversations are a little less monopolized by marriage talk and baby talk than they were before. There is a little bit of space for discussions of the joys of solitude and single life. Businesses are beginning to realize that not all of their customers are couples with kids. Builders and developers are wondering whether they should continue building so many cavernous homes in the suburbs. Most politicians are still matrimaniacs, but it is dawning on them that the biggest differences in political preferences are not between men and women but between married people and single people. (Single people, especially single women, vastly prefer Democrats.)
And yet, significant discrimination against single people continues unabated and mostly unchallenged. Advocates for same-sex marriage powerfully pilloried the assumption that only one kind of couple, the male-plus-female kind, should have access to the 1,000+ federal benefits and protections specifically awarded to those who are officially married. But single people have not successfully made the case that you shouldn’t have to be any kind of couple to have access to basic benefits and protections.
Also resistant to any progress are the myths about the transformative power of marrying. I will continue to have lots to say about why people are wrong to assume that getting married results in lasting improvements to health, happiness, longevity, or the extent of our connections with other people. You can always find writings on those topics at my blog post, “Everything you think you know about the benefits of marrying is wrong: The evidence.” I update it every time I critique a new study or new spate of media stories.
[Note: Thanks to Logic001 and iola for the heads-up about the reports that single people are now the majority.]