Peter McGraw doesn’t talk much about his life as a business school professor, but in this episode, he speaks to Amanda Kramer in his role as a professor and advocate for singles. This taping is part of the Leeds Business Insights podcast at the CU Boulder Leeds School of Business. They discuss familiar topics, but most of the conversation focuses on how organizations overlook singles from marketing and talent management standpoints.
Listen to Episode #115 here
Business Insights From The Science Of Singles
I launched Single Insights: The Science of Solos, a project that looks at the market opportunities of serving singles. It’s designed to speak to managers, marketers, entrepreneurs, salespeople, human resource professionals and policymakers. I don’t talk much about my life as a business school professor on this show, but in this episode, I speak to Amanda Kramer in my role as a professor and advocate for singles.
This interview is part of the Leeds Business Insights Podcast at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. It was my great pleasure to be asked to share solo insights with a broader audience who reads these business insights. Amanda and I discussed some familiar topics, but the lion’s share of the conversation talks about how organizations overlook singles from both a marketing and a recruiting standpoint. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
My name is Amanda Kramer. We are thrilled to be discussing the science of solos with Leeds’ Professor Dr. Peter McGraw. He is a professor of Marketing at the Leeds School of Business. He is a behavioral economist and host of the podcast Solo – The Single Person’s Guide To a Remarkable Life. Are you single and not looking to mingle? You are not alone. The singles movement is growing in the United States and worldwide with changing economic education and social situations offering singles, especially women, the freedom to go it alone. My guest is Leeds’ Professor Peter McGraw, who’s doing research and outreach to better understand what drives singles as well as the implications for businesses, which range from talent management to marketing. Welcome, Peter, and thank you so much for being here.
It’s my pleasure.
Tell us a little bit about how we got here to having this conversation about solos and dispelling the misconception that single people are sad and lonely.
This started as a personal project for me. I had a sabbatical that was forthcoming. Prior to that, I had dedicated more than a dozen years to studying humor and the causes and consequences of comedy. That was incredibly challenging, fulfilling, and life-changing, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a creative project and it started off being a project about turning 50.
I sound like a young man, but I’m on the other side of 50 now. What I realized was that story was going to be not about turning 50. It was about doing it as a bachelor. I’m a lifelong bachelor and the project morphed from a book into a podcast, which you’ve already mentioned. It was the resource I wish I had when I was a younger man and struggling with my singlehood.
I was feeling like there was something wrong with me, that there was something that I couldn’t get right about relationships and rather that I could live a fulfilling, happy, dare I say, remarkable life as a single. This created this resource designed to dive deeply into this often overlooked topic and it’s now turned into part of my professional life studying how singles are overlooked and undervalued in the marketplace. It’s been quite a ride.
Let’s dive into that ride so that we can learn more. Let’s quantify the rise before we dive in. What are we looking at in terms of numbers?
These are striking numbers. I’m going to be focused on the United States, but the rise of singles is a global phenomenon for a variety of reasons. In the United States, 128 million adults are single. Nearly 1 out of every 2 adults are single. That’s a big population, from 18-year-old college kids at the University of Colorado to 88-year-old widows and beyond. That number is going to continue to grow.
One in four Millennials is projected to never marry. That’s a striking increase from previous generations and this is one of the most interesting ones. Twenty-eight percent of households in the United States are solo or with one occupant and that number is again increasing worldwide and doing so exponentially. The reason for the rise is due to many reasons, but I will hit a few of the highlights for you.
The first one is demographic shifts. For example, it’s easier to get divorced now than it was before and so there are couples that are not staying together that otherwise would have suffered through an unhappy marriage. We have a lower birth rate. We have immigration and so immigrants tend to be single. They tend to be a solo when they first come over to the United States. We have people living longer than ever and that’s especially women. Women are living longer and also without their partners now. That’s one. It’s a general demographic shift.
The second one is and this is something that hasn’t been written about, but it’s something that I notice in my conversations in the show, in the Solo community and then more broadly. That is, singlehood begets singlehood in the following way. There was a time that if you were 35 years old and living in a neighborhood, you might be the only single person of your age in that neighborhood.
Everybody got married. It was what you did. It was commonly accepted. It was the default. It started off with you got married earlier and now, the age of first marriage is approaching 30, which is contributing to the rise of singles. Especially in urban areas, you can very easily find lots of other single people your age living a diverse set of lifestyles and not defaulting to the norm of family, marriage, children and so on. Because of technology, it’s easier than ever to connect with those people. You have role models, mentors and friends who live the same lifestyle and there is less pressure to couple up in order to fit in.
The third and you alluded to it at the beginning of your introduction and that is the rise of singles coincides with the rise of women. What we are finding in the United States and in other developed nations, in particular, is that, first of all, women are experiencing a lot less pressure to marry. They are given greater access to education.
The majority of college students in the United States, whether it be undergraduate or postgraduate, are women and also, women have greater and greater opportunities economically in the workforce. It happens to be the case that if you give women access to education and access to good jobs, some of them decide to live a different life in particular because they don’t have to rely on a man anymore to make their way.
It wasn’t that long ago in the United States that if you were a woman, you either lived at home with your parents and if you wanted to leave the familial house, you got married. Moreover, the invention of birth control has been a game-changer for women. That is that pregnancy could sideline a promising educational opportunity or career and thus has given women more and more choice to live the life they want to live and how they want to live it. As a result, women are staying single longer or not marrying at all. If they get divorced or widowed, deciding not to remarry because they have greater opportunities that are there.
I hear you mention the word solo as well as the word single, but they are not interchangeable or one and the same. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
The Solo project and the Solo movement, more generally, are about positivity. The average single feels incomplete. They feel like they need to partner up in order to achieve something worthwhile in life, and if that doesn’t happen, they often feel bad. They are embarrassed. They feel guilty and shame. On the other hand, Solos have transformed themselves from singles, have embraced autonomy, and recognize that a partner may be welcome, but a partner will not complete them. A partner will complement.
The solo mentality is that of opportunity, positivity, and not just autonomy but also an adventure. I think that singles benefit from a positive message and a message of opportunity. What I want are organizations, employers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, salespeople and human resource managers to recognize the opportunities similarly in singles or, as I call them, solos.
You mentioned this rise in singles, but also this rise in solo households. Can you tell us more about that?
Some of it obviously is being fueled by the rise of singles, but single people don’t necessarily have to live alone. They could live with a roommate, family and so on. The short answer to this is that it’s never been easier to live alone than it is. Some of that has to do with urbanization. It’s people coming back into the cities and city living being tailored to single living, apartments, condos and so on.
Another one is the rise of innovation and that there are now products and services out in the world that are designed to help people live a more convenient life that is time and energy saving. For example, there was a time that if you wanted to clean clothes, you had to go to the river and beat your clothes with a rock. If you were a farmer, you had to divide that labor. Someone worked the fields and someone headed to the river.
With the rise of industrialization and suburbanization, you have inventions like washers and dryers. Those very same washers and dryers make a single person’s life easier, but now you don’t even need a washer and dryer. You can leave your laundry outside your front door and service will pick it up, wash it, dry it, fold it, and deliver it back to you in a relatively inexpensive way and especially allows you to do other things.
There’s a host of these other time and energy-saving innovations that are out there, like meal kits and housekeeping. Also, you are even finding ways in the marketplace to lower costs. For example, across the street from the building that I live in, a new building is being built that will have micro-apartments in it that are specifically tailored for solos.
These are smaller footprint apartments but then bigger communal spaces. You can now live in the city in a nice apartment. It happens to be smaller, but it is more affordable in that sense. What we are finding is the marketplace, albeit slowly, is responding and allows people to then make the choice if they want to live on their own to do so. There was a time when it was too difficult to do.
As we think about the marketplace, let’s shift directions for a moment because some of your research centers around the nature of work and how singles can work differently in terms of shifts, hours and other factors. You’ve also worked to advocate for better workplace environments that meet single people where they are at, which doesn’t necessarily mean paying them more. Tell us a little bit more about this. How much of a focus do you think companies should place on recruiting single people and then how can they make their workplace a better place for singles to work?
This is a fascinating topic and one that is overlooked and more important than ever. With historically low unemployment rates, more and more employers are competing for high-quality workers. One of the things that’s very clear about the research is people don’t solely work for money. There are a host of other factors that matter in terms of recruiting and retaining your employees and especially recruiting and retaining the best employees because they are the ones who are most likely to leave.
What you are finding is that a lot of workplaces are slow to adapt, in part because they have this legacy belief about the nuclear family, which is on the decline and yet we have this rise of singles. Mathematically, it makes sense that if you are seeking to recruit and retain workers, singles are a good opportunity, but they may have different needs and they are certainly treated differently in the workplace.
For example, one thing that people care a lot about is the notion of equal treatment and respect within the workplace. One of the things that happen with singles a lot, and I talked to folks who discuss this and lament this, is there’s often less respect for a single person’s personal endeavors compared to a parent.
What happens is as a result of that, if you have a child, it’s easy to get off work. It’s easy to ask someone to cover for a shift because this is an important endeavor. Who gets asked to cover the shift and to work late? That is the solo, the single person, because presumably, you don’t have anything better to do with your time. Even something as simple as there’s going to be of picnic that’s happening. First of all, when that picnic happens, guess who’s allowed to be invited. Families, but I can invite my friend. People are like, “Why did you invite your friend?”
While everybody goes home to get their family, who gets asked to cover the shifts. That can create tension and a feeling like, “I’m not as valued in this place.” Moreover, as a result of this, statistically, singles tend to work more than their partnered peers. Some of that has to do with the reasons I have discussed and then some of that has to do with the lack of some of the natural boundaries that happen, “I got to get home to family. I got to go pick up my kids,” etc.
There’s research that I find disturbing in that, for example, new fathers often get pay raises without a commensurate increase in the value they provide. It’s seen as, “They have more need, this and there,” but any human resource professional or manager will tell you, “You should compensate people not based upon their need, but based upon their value and performance to the organization.” That could be morale debilitating for your singles and much of this is not even considered. This is not overt discrimination. This fits the norms of the day and fits the natural challenges that families and workers have to face in many ways.
There’s another area you have identified that highlights the differential between workers with families and single people.
The second issue is there’s an asymmetry in benefits. That is that singles and non-singles have different desires for what their benefits may be. I will give you an example of this. The average family person often welcomes a 9:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday schedule because their kids are on a similar schedule and their partners are on a similar schedule and they want to be able to have their nights and weekends free.
If you are single, you don’t have to adhere to a Monday through Friday 9:00 to 5:00 schedule and thus, you may be interested in working other times. As a single person, I would regularly spend Saturday night in the office, not because I don’t have a life, but because Saturday night is the busiest night to go out and I would rather catch up on some work.
The time spent in my office on a Saturday night is no less valuable than time spent in the office on Monday morning at 10:00 AM. Yet managers often will judge a person’s performance based on whether they are present rather than results again, which is what you should be basing performance on. A lot of workplaces are built into suburban office parks with long commutes. Being close to suburban families. Often singles are like, “I don’t have to be home. I can work anywhere and thus are desiring remote work more often, for example.”
The last thing is that the benefits offered to employees, which are in addition to a salary and often a very important element of work, are often built with families in mind. For example, a single person gets healthcare. A married person gets healthcare for themselves and for their family. They get a differential benefit. What is not often considered is, “What other benefit might the single person get to keep compensation in terms of benefits equal?”
Another example of this is bereavement leave. Almost every employer allows bereavement leave for a family member, but very few allow it for a friend and yet for a single person, friends may be serving the same role. They have a family of choice. This is especially the case for LGBTQ+ employees who tend to be more often to be single and are less likely to be connected to family for a variety of reasons.
For example, you could be thinking to yourself, “What do you do about this? I have a pretty easy solution. If you are an HR professional or a manager, what you do is create a cafeteria-style menu of benefits and allow people to select from them.” Any good employer should offer parental leave. That’s a no-brainer, but if you are single and don’t have plans to have a family again, you don’t have access to that benefit.
You should be able to choose something else from the menu, such as an ability to have a sabbatical to work on your personal or professional development. Maybe you should be able to choose pet insurance. Since you are not having health insurance, that’s going to a partner and children. You could imagine a whole variety of these different things, which is you get to choose the set of benefits that work best for you up to some potential limit.
It sounds like workplaces still have a lot of outdated biases against single people. What are some ways this bias is baked into institutions?
One, for example, is family leave. Any good workplace has parental leave, but people often now exist outside of that little nuclear family with regard to an extended family or even a family of choice. Seventy percent of companies only offer paid family leave to employees with children. It’s limited to that small group.
One of the biases against singles is they are seen as selfish. That is that they are not willing to lean in and do the hard work of raising a family, settling down and growing up. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Singles disproportionately donate their time and money to charity. They are more involved in their communities and they are especially likely to be the sole caregiver to an elderly parent and the reason this happens is you have two siblings. Mom gets sick and the sibling with a family goes, “I don’t have the bandwidth to do this. I need you to do this.” That’s what happens, is the single child steps up and takes care of mom or dad.
Under that policy, you can’t take time off from work and be paid for that. An inclusive employer recognizes that there’s a need for family leave. I will give you another example. If you are in the US Military and you get married, you get a raise. You are not given more responsibility. You get a raise for having a family. You can imagine how that doesn’t seem fair and how it creates a not-so-subtle pressure to do this thing because it is being externally rewarded.
Where does this idea of singles being selfish even come from?
This notion that singles are selfish is related to the perceptions of how single spend their personal time. If you have a family and are married, there’s no justifying what you do with your free time. There are no negative assumptions about what you do with your free time, but people may assume that a single employee spends their free time frivolously.
That is, they are out partying. They are having a good time. They are sitting on Netflix and chilling all the time. Maybe that makes you a little bit jealous, but that’s not necessarily the truth. First of all, I will say this as a little public service announcement. It doesn’t matter how someone spends their free time as long as they are performing well in the office. This should be a results-oriented work environment, but with that said, that selfish and single stereotype doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, singles are more likely to donate their time and money to charity than non-singles. They are more involved in their community. They have greater friendship networks. As I have mentioned, they are more likely to caregive an elderly parent.
Many singles talk about their disinterest in having a family, not because they are out there partying and living it up in the world, but because they have concerns about the future. They don’t want to contribute to climate change. What are they doing with their time instead? They are often contributing to the arts, sciences and entertainment. The time, energy and focus that would have gone to a family are going to these other types of endeavors.
It’s unfair to assume that about single people and then punish them by asking them to do extra. The overarching takeaway should be people care about fairness. They want their workplace to be a meritocracy, so anything that gets in the way of those two features can hurt morale and say, “This is not the right place for me,” which works against a place that’s looking to recruit and retain the best talent.
You’ve made a compelling case for why managers and HR should shift their priorities to recognize the importance of single people in the workplace. Similarly, how should businesses think about this growing demographic from a consumer perspective?
Before I make the case for how singles might be a solution, let’s talk about why they are an important solution. If you run a business, you care about growth short-term or long-term. In the short-term, you have the natural competitive forces that exist in the marketplace. Lots of people are fighting over the same customers. In the long run, you are seeing demographic shifts that can be concerning overall growth.
We have mentioned some of those like a lower birth rate, for example, or a graying population. I believe that singles are a solution to both of those problems. One is the demographics are shifting towards singles. There are more of them than ever, and they will continue to grow. Singles begets singles. Innovation helps foster this, the growth of solo households and so on.
In the short run, because most companies, entrepreneurs and CEOs still think about this legacy family structure as being the dominant one in society, they default into looking to serve that group overlooking this demographic shift. Once you recognize that singles are a potentially useful target market and no one else is, it gives you an opportunity to grow and to grow as this group grows.
Now that you’ve laid the groundwork there, how might a company do this?
The low-hanging fruit, the easiest thing is to recognize that you already have single customers and that you are not doing a good job communicating with them. For example, organizations have gotten very good at representing the diversity of customers that they have. Not all of their advertisements feature straight White people as they used to.
My encouragement is to look for opportunities to portray your product or service in a single person’s hands, hearts, and minds. I will give you an example of this. If you sell ice cream, one of the things that I hope you have figured out is that ice cream sales don’t diminish when the weather gets cold, counterintuitively.
When you look into that, what you find is that people buy ice cream as a nesting phenomenon, sitting under their blanket, watching Netflix and indulging themselves in a comforting way. Not all of those people are surrounded by 2.5 kids and a spouse. That person is sitting home alone and yet good luck finding that portrayal in a print ad or a television ad.
The last one is it’s amazing how many cars are filled with people and yet the average car is being driven by one person and one person alone, and as we know, half of those adults are solo. Looking for opportunities to show the full array in the same way that you are demonstrating the diverse customers that you have recognized the diverse customers that are coming in the form of solos.
Those are great examples for companies that already have products, but what about companies that have an opportunity to develop a product with a single in mind?
Let’s start with the car one. This is a fascinating case study. It is very difficult to innovate when it comes to car design in part because it’s so heavily regulated, and moreover, it’s very expensive to change from an existing structure. There’s a company out there called ElectraMeccanica and they have a car. It’s not technically a car. They call it a vehicle called the SOLO. It’s an electric vehicle with one seat in it and it’s built on motorcycle technology rather than automobile technology.
It’s a three-wheel vehicle that runs off a battery and it’s designed, as you might imagine, for the solo. Whether it be the solo commuter or for the single person more generally. This is groundbreaking because it has a lower price point. It fits also that solo mentality. Perhaps the person who cares about the environment wants to lower their footprint, deciding not to have a family, for example. That is something that is geared specifically, ideally, to a single owner.
The obvious stuff is what’s called shrinkage. You take your existing product and you make it smaller because people who live solo tend to live in smaller households. They have less storage space. They don’t have as much as many covers and they also don’t have as many mouths perhaps consuming this. One of the laments I have when I talk to singles is I don’t want to buy a loaf of bread. A full loaf of bread is too much bread. It’s going to get stale before I can finish it.
How do you work out the packaging? The serving sizes needs to be ideal for your audience. I will give you an example of this. When I buy chicken, sometimes I can find it in individually wrapped chicken breasts patties. You buy six of them and when you open one, you are only opening one versus the old school three patties in a container.
You can open one for dinner tonight, leave two in the fridge and the remaining three go in the freezer. A simple packaging change suddenly makes your product more appealing. The last one I will give you is a fascinating one. It’s a Japanese company called Ichiban and they serve delicious ramen. Ichiban has done something in which they have spearheaded solo dining. They have done this under the auspice of dining alone, allows you to concentrate on the flavor of their delicious ramen, but the business model is much more advanced than that and that is the way that Ichiban works are they have solo booths, one person booths with very minimal interaction with the server.
What they have found is that they turn their tables over faster. Solo diners eat 20% faster than non-solo diners because they are not conversing, hanging out and lingering. They eat and then they go. They have created this mutually beneficial restaurant concept, which again caters to a sizeable proportion of the population. It’s more profitable because they turn over their tables faster and is more comfortable because when you walk into an Ichiban restaurant, they don’t say, “Just one,” as if there’s something wrong with you. They are happy that you are just one.
Thank you for those interesting examples and case studies there. As we think about wrapping up here, our final question is, who else could benefit from changing their focus to better serve singles?
I will talk about two areas that are overlooked. The easy answer is any organization that has single members, customers, etc. One place is churches. We have had a decrease in religiosity in the United States. There is a lot of competition for churchgoers and smart churches are embracing marketing techniques. That is, they are looking to eliminate the pain points associated with going to church.
One of the things is that if you are single, you often feel left out of the church community because it’s so family-focused. A lot of the meetups and offerings are related to families, and yet single people become families. You don’t want to lose them before that happens and then some people remain single, but still want a spiritual experience.
The pastors, rabbis, priests, and others can shift some of their attention to make a more inclusive environment for this rising demographic. The other group that comes to mind is that of politicians, policymakers or government. So much policy and so much conversation around policy and campaigning are around the family, yet the struggles that families have are often the same struggles that single people have. Using more inclusive language can help not only bring people into the voting booth but then also to garner support for new policies and new initiatives that are designed to make the world a better place.
Every episode, we have an LB idea or a key takeaway. For a lot of readers, it’s going to be that they are not alone. It’s totally normal to be single or solo and there are even a lot of benefits. That’s why businesses shouldn’t overlook this demographic either as employees or in the marketplace. How are people responding to this? This message is that singles are not alone and that there are other people out there like them.
The idea that you may be solo but not alone is what drives me. I have never received as many text messages, phone calls, social media messages and emails thanking me for doing this work. For example, I have talked about how half of the American adults are single. Half of those single adults are not interested in dating or relationships at the moment. If you are one of those people, you feel strange, out of place in the world and yet it is as likely that someone wants this as doesn’t want it. That is incredibly empowering for people because it reinforces a choice they have made to help them live their remarkable lives.
Thank you so much, Peter, for joining us.
- Single Insights: The Science of Solos
- Leeds Business Insights Podcast
- Solo – The Single Person’s Guide To a Remarkable Life