In this episode, Peter McGraw speaks to Dr. Kris Marsh, a sociologist who researches alternative paths to becoming middle-class for Black Americans. She identifies a group that goes against the assumption that marriage is the path to middle-class living, and she invented a new term SaLA to describe this group: Single and Living Alone. They discuss how TV and Film shed light on this trend before academics noticed it. Hence the title of this episode, The Love Jones Cohort, which is a reference to the 1997 film Love Jones. In particular, Kris helps Peter clarify his thinking about how to think about singlism relative to the other isms, such as racism and sexism – something that came up in Episode 45 Not Lonely. Onely. Most importantly, Kris presents her brilliant response to the question, “Why aren’t you married?” That insight alone makes this episode worth listening to.
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Listen to Episode #46 here:
Meet The Love Jones Cohort
In this episode, I speak to Kris Marsh, a sociologist who’s doing important work on alternative paths to becoming middle class for black Americans. She identifies a group that goes against the assumption that marriage is the path to a middle-class living. She’s invented a new term SALA to describe this group, Single and Living Alone. The conversation is fun and fascinating. We discussed how TV and film have shed light on this trend before academics discovered it. Hence the name, The Love Jones Cohort, which is a reference to the 1997 film Love Jones.
In particular, she helps me clarify my thinking about how to consider singleism relative to the other isms, such as racism and sexism. It’s something that we puzzled about in the previous episode, Not Lonely. Onely. Perhaps most importantly, she presents her brilliant response to the question, “Why aren’t you married?” That insight alone makes the episode worth reading to. Please tell your Solo friends and family about the show, the new message board on the Solo page at PeterMcGraw.org, and that we have a new sponsor at WraptureMasks.com. Use promo code WraptureSolo to get your discount. I love this mask. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Kris Marsh. Kris is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and a Fulbright Scholar. Her research focuses on the black middle class, demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She’s a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, and Al Jazeera America. She’s frequently asked to contribute to the Washington Post. Kris is writing a book that examines the mental and physical health, wealth, residential choices, and dating practices of an emerging black middle class that is single and living alone. Welcome, Kris.
Peter, it’s great to be with you. I had to come all the way to Los Angeles to talk to you and I’m happy to be here.
I’m thrilled that you’re here and I appreciate you doing this. I have to tell you that I’m super impressed with what you’ve been doing with your work. I went down the rabbit hole while I was reading some of your papers. I want to talk to you about that, especially about the black middle class. I think it’s worth asking how did you get into doing this work. What’s the origin story?
I don’t want to make this the sociology of me, but I grew up in a predominantly white space. My parents did relatively well. Once they got some money in the bank and money in their pocket, they wanted to move to the widest neighborhood possible. They thought that was best for their three black daughters. Me and my sisters were the only black children in school. I got to a point where I was like, “I want to understand what the black middle-class experience is.”
In some ways, I think black middle-class adolescents have a sense of an identity crisis. They don’t fit in with the black poor because they have different lived experiences, but they also don’t fit in with the white middle class because of the racial differences. I’ve always wanted to study that. I got to graduate school and I wanted to study this identity crisis, but I thought it was first important to understand where the black middle class lived.
I’m looking at some of that demographic literature and I’m like, “There’s this whole concept of where the black middle class lives, but I’m looking at the demographic literature and seeing that there’s a shift away from marriage.” People aren’t married as much as they used to. The segregation literature talks about where married couples with children live but there’s not a conversation about where people who are black middle class and single are living. I started there and it took off from that point.
That’s super interesting because it sounds like we lived opposite childhood lives because I grew up in a town that started out as white lower middle class and then all these black families were moving in. The white families left, white flight. I graduated from high school that was 75% plus black. I had a different experience that was there.
It’s funny that you mentioned on the white flight because I teach this class on segregation. Students always think because blacks move into a neighborhood, it drops the property value. It’s not the presence of blacks moving in. It’s that many whites are moving out. White flight is driven by white behavior not by black presence. I always love to clarify that whenever I’m talking to somebody.
For me personally, it ended up being like a wonderful experience in terms of having such diversity as a young man in a country that struggles with its diversity.
Every day I was questioned about, “Why is your hair like that? Why is your butt like that? Why do you talk like that?” You become the token and then you have to represent all of black America. It was challenging.
No one was asking me about my hair or my butt. I will tell you that.
I got it on a daily basis.
It would be hard to have to represent. I wouldn’t say our situations were parallel in any way, but I think that there’s a fascinating reversal there. As you talk about this, we were chatting a little bit about my book that came out. I talked about Chris Rock and how he was able to expand his perspective because he never fit in his black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Then he got bused to a white school and he didn’t fit in there again. He didn’t fit in the neighborhood because of his perspective and his nerdiness and he didn’t fit in his school because of his blackness.
There’s a research project there to be done. I’m trying to convince my graduate students or someone to do it. I do believe that black middle-class adolescents do have to straddle two worlds and how does that look? What does that look like? The question becomes like, “What’s authentically black then?” If you didn’t grow up poor, if you didn’t grow up without having your lights being cut off and having to have sugar sandwiches for dinner, is that the only black experience? No. There are other black experiences where you go to Aspen for winter break and go skiing, but we have to make sure we understand that black America is not monolithic. Just because you go skiing in Aspen, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less black. Just because you have your lights cut off, it doesn’t mean that you’re more black.
I came across this Twitter post about a black medical worker. I don’t know if he was a doctor or a nurse, but he got pulled over and he was in his scrubs. He got treated completely differently than he had in the past. Do you know what his solution was? He started wearing his scrubs all the time because it allowed him to move in this world in a completely different way. He was able to go along to a different category than he would have.
I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine. He’s a kidney surgeon. His mom was telling him, “Be sure to always wear your badge and your white coat home. It will bring you home safely.” He was like, “I’ve been pulled over before. When I do have on my white coat and my badge, it says, ‘I’m a surgeon,’ the officers think like, ‘You think you’re better than me?’ Either way, it could be a lose-lose situation.” In that case, the officer has all the power.
That was pre-COVID I guess. I think this example is illustrative of the challenges of this group. What I’m impressed by is your work and I teach my graduate students about what makes a good paper. I talk about positioning an academic paper as you are creating a unique solution to an important problem. When you unpack that unique idea, you were saying something that no one else is saying. You’re solving a problem. You have to present a problem in the paper and the beautiful thing about academia is you get to pick the problem and you get to pick the solution. At least mostly unless someone hijacks it in the peer-review process. As I was reading your paper, this is incredibly difficult.
I don’t know about your field, but acceptance rates in journals are 1%, 5%, 10%. The more elite the journal, the more difficult the process. I think what you have done with your work is you’ve found that important problem and you have a unique solution. I’m going to try to say it and then you tell me if I have an understanding. You’ll tell me if I get it wrong. You can give me a grade. Before your work, the sociological literature focused on the black middle class and looked at married couples, families with children.
That makes an assumption that work implicitly or explicitly makes us an assumption that having a dual income and being married is being middle class. It also assumes that marriage leads to becoming middle class but as you point out, if two poor people get married, that doesn’t make them middle class. You suggested a lot of things, but one of them is, maybe the middle class may lead you to get married. The causal arrow may head in the other direction and then you have dove deeply into a different path to the middle class.
I think also you have to understand that with research, we’ve got to get our research question. We’ve got our problem we’re trying to solve. I believe there’s beauty in the interpretation. You may interpret it differently than I interpret it. It’s great that we may not see it exactly the same and that’s the beautiful part about the research process.
What have I gotten wrong then?
You haven’t got anything wrong “per se.” It’s that what happened to a lot of the scholars that were talking about the black middle class, it wasn’t forward where they were saying that you had to be married with children. It was like a subtle assumption. I picked up on that subtle assumption and I ran with it. Some of the earlier works that to be middle class, you have to have both mother and father working outside of the household. That assumes, if you have to have both mother and father work outside the household, you have to be married.
From there, I started to open up that conversation. If we look at the demographic literature, we know marriage rates are changing for all racial and ethnic groups. Lower marriage rates are way more pronounced for blacks. “Are you also suggesting that the black middle class is going to shrink because marriage rates are shrinking?” I’m like, “No, I think that there’s a compositional shift in the black middle class away from married couples to young black professionals who aren’t married and don’t have any children.” The social scientists couldn’t see that, but media seemed to have got that under control. I was trying to merge those two into conversation with each other.
Black women are two times more likely than white women to not marry by 45. They’re also twice as likely if they do marry to get divorced. There are a lot more single women in this community.
The interesting question about that is, “Are black women choosing to be single by choice or by force?” We’re sitting in the middle of two global pandemics and now people are starting to use words like white supremacy and structural racism. How does structural racism play into the choices that black women have to marry men if they want to marry men of the same socioeconomic statuses? It becomes an interesting conversation that we can have because we’re sitting in this context where we could acknowledge that structural racism does exist.
Let’s do that and then I want to get to the media stuff. I want to get to some of these other things. Marriage rates are going down for a variety of reasons. Let’s talk through the reasons in general and then the reason specifically for blacks in America.
If we look at it from a demographic perspective, there’s a sex racial imbalance. There are more professional black women than there are professional black men. There are a couple of assumptions we have to make there. We’re assuming that it’s going to be a heterosexual relationship. We’re also assuming that it’s going to be the same race relationship because we’re not talking about interracial relationships. We’re talking about the same sex, same race. If black women want to marry black men, there are not enough numbers out there for every black woman to marry a black man.
Both in terms of actual numbers that there are more black women than black men but then also this idea of socioeconomic status that there tends to be some matching that happens.
It’s the educational homogamy literature. If I have a PhD, I probably want to marry somebody with a PhD. If a black woman has a PhD, there aren’t eligible black men that have PhDs that she can marry. What does she do? Does she marry down? Does she marry outside of her race or does she not marry? We also know in the literature that we think about interracial dating, black women are willing to interracially date, but you don’t have other races that want to date them.
I found a thing that what’s amazing is these dating apps collect tons of data. It’s not self-report. It’s real behavior like swipes and so on. It’s like black women and Asian men are the least likely to get likes and winks and all of that on the dating site. What’s amazing is that people are like, “I’m not racist. I just don’t like it.”
I have a preference, but I have black friends. My mentor is an economist. He always said, “If we want to solve this problem, Asian men and black women should get married. If they want to get married, they’re the least likely to be approached to the dating websites.” Black women have to decide if they want to marry up or they want to marry down. They want to interracially date or do they want to remain single. The question about the singlehood is like, “How are people perceiving this singlehood?”
That’s why I have a show called Solo: The Single Person’s Guide to a Remarkable Life because if people were thinking that naturally, I wouldn’t need to have a show.
You have the PhD, you’re making $250,000, you’ve got property all across the country but when you meet somebody, they’re like, “Why aren’t you married?” It’s discounted everything else that you’ve done. It normalizes marriage. I’m hoping that my work can say, “You can be single and you can live alone. You can live a fulfilled life and you can still be middle class.” People are still stuck in this heteronormative understanding of how people should be, husband, wife, 2.5 kids, and a black picket fence. I’m like, “No, I’ve got to push back against this.”
It’s because the demographic literature is telling me that there’s a subset of black American who is not going to get married. If you want to marry somebody on their same level, they’re not going to get married. We have to push the conversation, especially in COVID. I’ve talked to a lot of people and they’re saying like, “It’s much better to be alone than to wish that I was alone. Why are people getting married?” I want to have that conversation. You’re getting married for what purpose? Is it because it’s social pressure or it’s because it’s what you want to do?
As I’ve been working through a lot of ideas, I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I want to talk to you about singleism as an ism. We can point to the problems that it causes. My feeling about the problems that it causes aside from there’s housing stuff, there’s money stuff, there’s employment stuff and so on. I think that the worst part of the stigma against single people is that it inhibits them from living their best life. That is they don’t walk the path that is best for them. They walk the path that the world says they should be walking. I think that’s an incredibly lost opportunity. How does the black community fit into a greater demographic shift that we’re seeing in America, and across the world of more singles and more singles living alone?
Once we have the race conversation, that’s when we have to tease out whether or not it’s by choice or it’s by force. I would argue that black America, in some ways it’s by force. They don’t have comparable mates to marry, but for white America, we want to choose a different path now. We don’t want to get married now. There are probably people that they could marry comparable mates, but they’re choosing not to. It’s more of a choice. In black America, you have many professional black women in particular, whether it can’t find comparable mates so they’re carving out this own innovative way into the middle class and singlehood for themselves.
I want to ask though, I think that there are some inklings of this in white America too where you’re starting to see the rise of women, greater opportunities in terms of education. A decline in young men, especially struggling. You’re seeing this at the university levels. You think that those changes are more about choice than about the lack of opportunity.
It’s more about choice. If we are starting to see that demographic shift in white America, black, white women should pay homage to black women because they’ve taught them what to do. We’ve been doing it for years. We weren’t taught what to do. Give us praise and call us the pioneers.
I completely agree with that. It bothers me to see and I think this is fascinating literature. I’ve started reading a lot of books about single living. There are not that many of them, but the lion’s share of the ones that exist are ones of like, “I know that being single sucks and you want to be married. Here’s how you cope with it and here’s how you get a man.” They’re almost all written for women. There are these messages that are like, “He’s good enough.” There’s a book that says, “Just do it. Get it done.” I’m like, “I’m not sure that’s the right way to be thinking about it.”
Fast forward that to fifteen years and what does that look like? Fast forward that to COVID, what does that look like? If he’s good enough and you’re working a 9:00 to 5:00 and you’ll have to deal with him or tolerate him for a couple of hours. We’re in COVID and you’re in the house with this person for 24 hours out of the day. It’s funny because a lot of my friends are saying like, “We’re going to see uptake infertility after COVID.”
I was like, “Absolutely not. You’re going to see uptake and divorce because people realize I don’t like the person that I’m in a relationship with.” What I tell everybody is, “You have to be happy, healthy and whole as your own person first before you get into a relationship.” Our relationship is not going to do that for you. You can live your best life. You should be living your best life by yourself and then if you decide to add somebody to that story, then be it but you cannot let our relationship be the story that leads you into this wonderful life.
Kris, you were the poster child for this show. Thank you so much. I completely agree. I’ve had a divorce mediator/lawyer on to talk about these issues. I’ve had a couple of friends who their partner has dropped the D-bomb on them during the pandemic.
This is unfortunate, but you have to question why exactly did you get married in the first place? Is it to check that box? I hope the research pushes back against that narrative.
I do too. I think we have to give people an alternative narrative because if you go looking for the narrative, what you end up finding are people who are a little sad, whiny, and resigned to their imperfect single life or, “How can I problem-solve my way out of this?”
I want to get back to a point that you made. The onus is on us as scholars because we can write stuff about, “Look at this sucky single life.” There’s the stuff that’s been out there about this lucky single life. If we’re starting to push that conversation in a different direction and talk about the positiveness of the single life and what are some of the advantages of it and what are some of the innovative things that you can do, we now start to give people hope, understanding and a narrative to wrap their minds around. There’s not a lot of work that’s done out there because it’s a value judgment. Everything is value judgment that’s placed on married with children.
Kris, we’re doing it right here. What I like about your work is it suggests an alternative path. One that I think is reasonable and rational and one that you don’t have to be resigned because I think that there are great opportunities walking that different path. I grew up with a single mom and a fairly absent father. I say we were food stamps poor. We weren’t welfare poor. I had to work hard to survive until I got to a certain age where I could switch from survive to thrive. I wonder how much that has also contributed to my solo living where like, “I’m lean and agile. It’s just me. I can make my way on my own. I can eat ramen. I can make this work.”
While a lot of people think about, “If you partner up, you make a team. You’re better off,” that’s all risky theme to put all your eggs in that one basket and divorce can wipe out everything that you have. I don’t know how much it has influenced me in terms of playing it safe as a single in my life. I think there are other much more predictive reasons for why I’ve ended up solo. Nonetheless, when you think about it, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable way for someone to think which is, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am. Do I want that 1/3 probability that I’m worse off?”
You bring up some good points and one of the things that people have said that we know in the literature, they talk about singles being selfish, narcissistic and they don’t want to partner up. We also know that we extend ourselves and our time to our extended family. We give more than married people so you can’t say that we’re narcissistic and selfish.
This is the most infuriating stereotype of single people for the reasons that you say. I was surprised by the data because I’ve been inculcated in this world. I did an episode with a comedian Leighann Lord. She has a podcast called People with Parents that are focused on caregiving your parents and the literature is clear. These solos pick up the lion’s share disproportionate amount of caregiving to parents. They donate more, volunteer more, are more connected to friends and their community.
The idea that they’re selfish is crazy. Plus, is there anything more selfish than creating miniature versions of yourself? My thing is it’s not that married people are selfish or single people are selfish. People act in their self-interest generally. Self-interests though is this broad concept where we’re being a good friend is a self-interested act. Giving to your community is a self-interested act because you’re part of the community.
I think it’s completely spurious to say that. I wanted to have you on here because I like this idea of an alternative path to thriving. You have identified a group of people who are thriving in this unconventional way. The name of your book is called The Love Jones Cohort: Single and Living Alone in the Black Middle Class. For people who don’t understand the reference to The Love Jones Cohort, where did that come from?
If you look in media, small screen, big screen, you see two-parent households with the quintessential two-parent households. You have a lawyer, doctor, and four children. The middle class were starting to move away from these two-parent households so to these young black professionals who weren’t married and don’t have any children. They forgot to think about their careers and lives and navigating the world.
Are you talking about the ’80s or ’90s? I remember Black TV. I remember Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons and some of the early good time shows.
You had a lot of shows where there were black poverty and black struggles. Then we started to get these middle-class households. We’ve got the Cosby’s who by definition would be considered upper class. In my research, either you’re middle class or you’re not. Either you made it or you didn’t. I don’t parse out lower middle class, middle middle class and upper middle class.
I think that’s a fair thing to do given the research on the value of income is that it’s a non-linear effect once you get past some threshold. It’s nice but it’s not crucial.
Some sociologists parse out and we have to have this constant conversation back and forth. You saw black poverty, black struggle, then you start to see a pivot and you started to see middle-class or elite black families. It was always black families, a husband, and a wife. Then The Love Jones Cohort, I think it was the late ‘90s, the Love Jones. It was a movie and it was like a black professional. You start to see this new character emerge where marriage isn’t necessarily as salient as it was in some of these other movies. What I try to do with the books is to use a classic demographic term because I am a demographer. I try to use a media reference. That’s how I came up with The Love Jones Cohort.
What is the premise of the movie, Love Jones?
It’s young black professionals trying to navigate life. That’s what they’re trying to do.
Is it a romantic film?
It is a rom-com by definition which I don’t watch any of those at all ever because that’s not reality. My sister loves them.
I wanted to know because I have yet to watch it. I’m going to watch it but I remember watching during the ’90s, there’s a movie called Singles. It’s set in Seattle. It’s 90210 styles, a group of friends, and dating. It’s built around the grunge thing. One of the Dillon brothers and Bridget Fonda is in it. It was a great soundtrack. The media was picking this up. There’s also another film called The Brothers that talk about a group of black brothers and their trials and tribulations navigating life. I think that the media is going to help drive this narrative.
It’s because you’re starting to see this shift now because you also have like Living Single. That was for black women, which is funny because Friends came out after Living Single. As a side note, Aretha Franklin released a version of Let It Be before The Beatles. It’s a fascinating version.
This Living Single thing has come up because they’re talking about rebooting it. Living Single preceded Friends. It was well-reviewed. I did some research on this. These stupid networks put Friends and Living Single up against each other knowing that it might appeal not racially, but psychographically, not demographically that there are a group of people who are focused on their single life. Why not give them more offerings rather than make them choose?
One of the things I grappled with while I was writing the book is whether or not I wanted to talk about people that are single and living alone as solo because you have that book by Eric Klinenberg. When I wrote my piece, I called them SALA, Single and Living Alone. I did not want to change it to SOLO because I thought SOLO didn’t take into account race. I decided to call them SALA because it does take into account race. As I said before, I feel like in a lot of ways, black America has taught singles how to be single.
I wanted to make sure and make that distinction. I don’t want to parse out and make too many distinctions within the group, but I do understand that there is a unique distinction that needs to be made along racial lines and who’s been doing this for the longest time. It’s important that we had that conversation from living single. We have four black women who were tracking their lives but then Friends come along and they can’t compete. The reality is Living Single is first.
I wanted to talk about this because I chose Solo as the top topic and as the name of this show. I looked hard. I thought hard. I continue to think hard about the right language to use. Naming things matters. If you name something well, you can win the game. I think that’s academia and in life in general. This idea of SALA, which is part of your subtitle was inspired in part by other acronyms. What were those acronyms?
SOLO was one of them and then we had DINKs and DEWKs. That was one of the criticisms I got and then when I first wrote that piece in social forces, they’re like, “Why aren’t you using some of these acronyms?” I was like, “I’m carving out a whole new demographic group and I’ve made my own acronyms. Is there a problem?”
DEWKs means Dual Earners With Kids. I want to ask about this. Do you see SALA as the black version of SOLO? Help me understand that.
I don’t necessarily see SALA as a black version. You can be SALA white or black, but I didn’t want to use the word SOLO because I think when you think of solo, we’re not having a unique race conversation. SALA allows us to have a race conversation. A black person can be a SALA. A white person can be SALA. A purple person can be a SALA but The Love Jones Cohort is specifically for black middle-class people that are SALAs.
What I’m doing is I’m deconstructing Kris’s title of her book which is The Love Jones Cohort. We covered that. Single and Living Alone, that’s the SALA. Then you say in the black middle class. One of the things that you have done is you’ve been clear because you’re an academic, a nerd and because to navigate the peer review process, you have to be incredibly clear about what this is because this scholar defines the black middle class is X, that scholar is Y. If you have two different definitions, you can’t have a conversation about this. You have four criteria. All must be met in order to qualify as a black middle class. What are some of those four?
We have education, income, occupation, and wealth which we used homeownership as a proxy for wealth. What I did was I looked at the census data from 1980 until 2010 and I’ve looked up to 2014 as well. I looked at all-black households and then I looked at the median income for all black households. If you were above the median for all black households, you received a score of one on the black middle-class index that I developed. If anybody in the household had a college degree, you received a one on the index side developed. If your occupational score was above that median for all black middle-class households, you received a one on the occupation. If you owned a home or were buying a home, you received a one on the index. If you have somebody who has a PhD, make $250,000, professional, but do not own a home or any other assets, they will not show up in my dataset as middle class.
I get so much pushback. I was at a conference and this lady came up to me. She was irate. She was like, “I wrote five books.” I was like, “I’m a demographer.” I’m trying to show them this demographic group exists, it’s growing and what the trends are. I’m looking across time. I had to have some strict measures. I do think that if I would’ve relaxed my standards some on the wealth measure, it would have been a much bigger group. Part of the research talks about the fragility of the black middle class and there are 1 or 2 paychecks away from poverty because they don’t have any assets. I wanted to argue that this was like a solid group within the black middle class. I had to do a homeownership. I’m not putting a value judgment on homeownership, understand that. I’m clearly saying that they have assets so when COVID hits, that could draw their assets to move forward if they need to.
Kris, I could tell by what you’re saying, you’ve been beaten up. It’s a more conservative test of the black middle class. Let’s dive into this, not as a critique because I buy you rationale which is like, “I need to measure something and I can’t tell how much money they have in their brokerage accounts.” Buying a home, a condo or something correlates with this because it’s America. That’s what we’ve been taught, brainwash that you need to get married and have the white picket fence. The challenge is that solos are more mobile.
They have more options. They don’t have to have the security of a home because they don’t have children oftentimes. I had a financial planner Money Amy on, and we were talking about financial freedom for single people. What’s interesting is that the checkboxes in the path are almost the same but when the house thing comes up, her argument was, “Don’t buy a place unless you know you’re going to be in it for five years.” If you’re super mobile as solos can be, it’s hard to be like, “I’m going to be here for five years.”
Two points to that. One is that people often say like, “Who do you want to read your book? Who’s your audience?” I was like, “Everybody.” I also think wealth management companies should read the book because they don’t think they do a good job of catering to a single market. There are beautiful commercials out there where you have same-sex relationships, you see interracial relationships, but I don’t see that single person represented in the commercials. I’m like, “You’ve got to buy the book because you’re missing out on a whole entire market.” Not to exploit, but there’s a market there to serve. I think with singles, they have a diverse financial portfolio because they’re like, “Maybe I don’t want to be tied down to a house, but I can get into stocks, bonds, or precious metals.” They can do different kinds of things. We need to have that conversation with wealth management companies like, “Charles Schwab, where you at?”
Singles can lever up risk because they have a lower burn rate. They don’t have to worry about paying college tuition in ten years so they can have longer timelines in terms of investing.
If I want to eat popcorn for dinner because I’m in a bad investment, I can eat popcorn for dinner. It will all turn around.
I have a book that says Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers. This is a preview for the audiences to keep you reading. I’m going to do a follow-up to solo caregiving about solo aging. How do you prepare to age as a single person? Married people should be reading too, because there’s a good chance that you’re going to end up as a solo ager even though you’re married in 50/50 and higher if you’re a woman.
That’s the whole premise of Elyakim’s book, Happy Singlehood. As you age if you’re single, you already have that network in place so you get it but older people are returning back to singlehood so they don’t know how to navigate aging.
I’m doing a series about Selling to Singles because singles have different needs, desires, lifestyles and values. They have other opportunities. The wealth management stuff is in there which I completely agree with you.
The commercials have come a long way, but they have a long way to go.
I’ve always talked to my students, especially my finance-focused students in my marketing class about why don’t you have more demographically and psychographically relevant investment vehicles. Why wouldn’t you have a special type of mutual fund for people like you and me who are tenured professors and have job security? I think there are a lot of opportunities in these corporations because they’re run by married people. They’re asleep at the wheel.
They’re not paying attention to enough of the demographic stuff that’s there and then they’re not paying attention to this psychographic stuff which you alluded to at the outset of this, which is, are you single by choice or by force? I think that when you split along that line, suddenly there are different needs that are there. As I think you’re alluding to is the best thing you can do if it’s by force is to turn it into choice. You have these criteria, what does your research show?
My research shows that married couples in the black middle class are decreasing and single and living alone are increasing. In 2000, the second-largest household in the black middle class was single and living alone, SALAs behind married couples, but they were less than 50%. The question becomes, how is a black middle class going to reproduce itself? Class status is usually transferred from parent to child.
That’s the dirty little secret of America which is most wealth gets created because someone dies then the generational transfer of wealth.
If SALA is the second-largest household type in the black middle class and they don’t have a partner and they don’t have children, who are they going to their wealth to? One, you need to make sure that all SALAs have living trust and wills. Two, who were they going to transfer their wealth to? It becomes an innovative question for SALAs to think about, “Am I going to leave it to my sorority, my fraternity, my college, to my church?” It becomes an interesting conversation.
Am I going to try to spend it all in those last ten years?
Am I going to leave it to nieces, nephews, godchildren? Those aren’t the conversations that wealth managers are having with singles and they should.
I’m happy you’re saying this because I have on my to-do list, all it says is will. I’ve decided in the vein of living a remarkable life that I’m going to create a fun will. I’m going to create a trust. My niece and nephew don’t read to this. One of the things I’m going to do is set an age in which they get the money if there’s any left. If I live to 100 and spend it all, sorry kids. You’ve got nothing. Their age is going to be way higher than they want it to be because being poor sucks but being old and poor is horrible. I need to avoid the worst-case scenario for my niece and nephew, which is that they’re old and poor. They’re going to be unhappy with the trust, but they won’t be poor. I’m going to do a lot of fun things where I’m going to gift to people fun gifts. These are people who have supported me throughout my life. They might as well get to have some fun as a result of my demise.
It depends on how you want to approach it. You can approach it from an optimistic or pessimistic perspective to say, “I’m putting a living trust together. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have children. I’m going to do some fun, innovative things with my money,” or “I don’t have a partner. Who am I going to give all my stuff to?” As academics, I’m like, “I would love to have some scholarships in place for young black girls coming behind me that want to be demographers. There’s no reason why I can’t.” I don’t have any nieces or nephews.
I have some godchildren and they’ll get some, but they’re going to be okay. Poverty sucks and it will be great to have some scholarships in place and singles have the ability to think differently about bequeathing assets to the next generation. It doesn’t have to be to your nuclear family as some would call it your “traditional family.” You can extend that conversation. My students in some ways are my family. I’m going to make sure that I leave something for them. It’s like the Urban Tribes. It takes place in New York and talks about how young people are built in these urban tribes to navigate singlehood.
I am excited about this project. I’m thrilled that we finally got a chance to meet because my mind is swirling with all these possibilities. In the same way that you had this breakthrough idea, which is marriage and middle class are not the equivalents. Once you break that bond, you break that connection, it opens up a new perspective. Now you can produce scholarship, which then perhaps changes other people’s perspectives and then guides young scholars in terms of exploring this. It has real implications for real people’s lives that they can decide on a different path, thus live more comfortably, live more optimistically, and live with a greater sense of opportunity with real greater opportunities.
Once you start removing yourself from this, it’s difficult in some way because you have more choices. It’s better in some ways because you have more choices. You don’t default to, “I guess my kids are going to get my wealth. I’ve worked hard to build this. They get it. My nieces and nephews are automatically the cases.” You’re right and that’s why I’m doing the Selling to Singles series because these companies, these entrepreneurs are drinking the Kool-Aid. I haven’t seen Love Jones brothers. Once you pull that back, there’s all this opportunity to create products and services. Can I ask you a digressed question?
Of course, you can.
One of the episodes is the best inventions, the best innovations for singles. I’m curious off the top of your head, and you can’t say birth control, what is in your opinion the best invention or the best innovation for single people?
Being defined as a family of one.
Tell me more.
I look at census data. People that are single, living alone, have never been married, with no children. They would not show up as a family. They would show up as a household and there are advantages to being a family. You get a discount on your medical benefits if you’re a family. By census definition, you have to be related by marriage, blood, or adoption to be a family. If you’re a family of one, if you’re single, you cannot be a family. I think that there are advantages to being in a family. Your medical insurance rates can be better if you’re a family. Your tax rate is going to be better if you’re a family.
Does that happen?
No. If we have all the money in the world, I would change the way in which we define family. If one person can be a family of one, I am related to myself. I am a family of one.
I love this idea because occasionally, I’ll do an episode where it’s just me. I call it Solo Thoughts because I don’t want to victimize the guest with me going on and on about something. I responded in this episode to an Arthur Brooks article in the Atlantic. In it, he talks about successful addicts and all these kinds of things. What was interesting is implicitly through the whole article, you realize he’s talking to parents, and mostly male parents in it. The Atlantic has a strong family bias.
They have a section called The Family. In it, they describe the family as the most basic unit in America. I remember reading that and going, “How was that the most basic unit?” Especially because most people have a family necessarily. They may be part of one, but they’re not a partner. This idea of being defining a family as the singleton is the single unit, it then eliminates a lot of the disproportionate benefit that exists. Looking back, what do you think the best innovation is? I’m curious as a sociologist what you’re going to say.
I would have to argue that it’s the economic independence of women because marriage was thought of as their avenue into middle-class status. They had to get married. They had a husband that was working outside of the house that was able to provide for them but now women had their own economic independence. They were able to participate in the labor force at higher rates and then they had to second guess whether or not they wanted to be married.
It was thought of as a class, it catapults you in a middle-class status in some ways but in some ways, women are like, “I’m doing okay by myself. I don’t need to be married. I may want to be married, but I don’t need to be married.” It is a big difference between a want and a need which gets back to the earlier conversation we were having that people are getting married because they think they need to get married, but they don’t want to get married. Fast forward fifteen years and now you’re in COVID and you realize you don’t like the person that you are, you don’t like the person that you’re in a relationship with and you would have been much happier as a single person, but you fell into these social pressures and are married, but you did not need it nor did you want it.
I think that’s a strong one in terms of the shift in perspective and the change in opportunity. For a lot of history, if you were a woman and didn’t want to live in your parents’ house anymore, the only way to do that was to get married. I like the idea. I’m pro optionality. I like that people can have options to be able to live their best lives.
Options should not be on a scale. There are different options. Not one option is more valued than the other option.
There’s a book called Happy Singlehood. I’ve been communicating with Elyakim as I’ve been preparing for the Selling to Singles and to talk about the rise of solo living. He has these eight reasons that we’ve seen this increase in the number of single people, not just in America, but worldwide. One of those critical ones is exactly your point, which is the shifting positive perspective and opportunities that women are having that’s there.
In terms of your other insights that you’ve had, what do you think also stands out to you as you’re writing this book? Especially for the solo audience in terms of giving them motivation, helping them understand a world especially because as you’re arguing, it’s a model for the white world. What you’re suggesting is that these people are at the leading edge of a major shift in which they’re making their lives better by foregoing the traditional conventional route.
They’re choosing a different route. I don’t want to say it’s better because then we start to put a value judgment on the single versus married and I don’t want to put a value judgment on either.
I wanted to say better in the sense that the middle class is better than poverty.
That’s a whole other conversation because if we look at some of the outcomes like physical and mental health outcomes for people that are middle class, black middle class in particular, they score worse on all of these outcomes than white middle class. Even though you’ve achieved middle-class status, you’re still black in America and you have to contend with that. Ignorance is bliss too which you don’t know, you don’t know.
I think that this is always a dangerous situation. It depends on what your reference points are. Before we fired this up, we were talking a little bit about being young in America in a world of social media. When we were young without a world of social media, you knew where you fell along some hierarchy in a school in terms of your coolness, your athletic ability, your academic ability. These various forms of status that exist within a high school or junior high. For example, I was low on the cool, modest on the athletic and okay on the academics so I could make my way. In this world, you are never going to feel cool enough. You’re never going to feel attractive enough. You’re never going to feel as successful enough. There are no 30 under 30 lists when we were 29. I haven’t come that far as grad students or whatever it might be. I can talk about myself when I look at how I’ve done relative to where I started. I can be over the moon about it.
I want to answer that in three different ways. First and foremost, if we think about like middle class versus people that are in poverty, in some ways, I do think that there is something to be said about living in a predominantly black space and being around other people that have the same lived experiences as you. You may not have to deal with those daily microaggressions that me as a black female professor in a predominantly white institution and among predominately white faculty have to deal with. That’s different navigation that I have to navigate through versus being in the inner city where it’s all people that look like me, all of us are poor and we’re all navigating this thing together. There are differences. I’m not saying one’s better than the other. I’m simply saying there are differences.
They’re both a struggle, just different kinds of struggles.
One was more of a physiological struggle and one is more of a psychological struggle, but at the end of the day, they’re both going to lead to hypertension. Either way, we’re going to get there. The other point I want to make is you were talking about what are some other things that I’ve learned. My book is not about black women. There are about five single black men that are out there. It was important that I didn’t write the book only about black women. There are black men that are out there as well, but women dominate the category. When there are gender differences, I talk about those in the book, but it is about The Love Jones Cohort, which includes both men and women in that category.
There’s nothing special about being a woman in terms of these benefits. It’s about being single. Also, middle class.
There are gender differences that do come up and I talk about that. One of the other things that are towards the end of the book and the conclusion and it was almost like a love letter that I write to The Love Jones Cohort. I tell them like, “Every time someone says to you, ‘Why aren’t you married or why don’t you have any children?’ Ask them what do you mean by that?” Say it politely. At some point, they’re going to realize the error in their thinking and keep pushing. People automatically are going to say, “You know.” “No. I don’t know. What do you mean by that? I have three degrees, three houses, three cars and three businesses but the only thing you want to know is whether or not I’m married and have children.”
I’m furiously writing down because I’m prepping an episode on how to respond to anti singles rhetoric. I want to do that because I don’t think I’m that good at it. My plan was to have a couple of comedic types and mostly come up with snarky funny responses. This reminds me of a former FBI hostage negotiation guy. He wrote a book that’s super well known. He’s killing it. The book is called Never Split the Difference and it’s about using negotiation techniques in real life.
He has a saying which is when someone makes an unreasonable demand in a negotiation is to say, “How do I do that?” You push it back on the person and it forces them to be more reasonable in their demands. If you say, “How do they do that?” then they can’t. “I want a 747 filled with this.” “How do I do that?” The person goes, “I’ll take a bus.” I assume you have experience when someone says, “Kris, you’re great. You’re alive and fun, funny and successful. Why aren’t you married?”
It works every time but their first response is probably going to be, “No, I don’t know. Can you help me explain what do you mean by that?”
Where do these conversations tend to go when you do this?
One of two things will happen. They’ll either be like, “Let’s have a conversation about this.” Maybe they’ll be like, “Never mind.” You dropped a golden nugget and they’re going to have to go home and think about that. They’re like, “Let me think about like my heteronormative understanding of relationships, marriage, and my views about singleness.” If you’re ultimately saying that you’re superimposed at a deficit model at me, I have all these attributes, but I don’t have a spouse and I don’t have children so I’m not complete.
I don’t throw around the word ‘genius’ often but that is genius. That is brilliant. Thank you so much for that. Good people, readers, if you take anything away from this, that’s number one.
You can either do it in a snarky way, “What do you mean by that?” or, “Help me understand.”
I think the tone of that response matters. It’s an act of compassion to do that because you get to give people a chance. It’s a teachable moment. Let’s talk about golf. I don’t golf and you do. That violates lots of stereotypes. My family wanted me to golf even though we were in a difficult financial situation, my grandfather would help out sometimes. There were the two things that I would say I got exposed to that are middle class, upper middle class as a child. One was I remember being young and doing horseback riding lessons, which is not something that low-income kids tend to do.
The other one was my grandfather paid for some golf lessons when I was in middle school. I even played on the freshman golf team and then gave it up. I ended up doing other sports in high school. I have friends who golf. I’ll occasionally go to a driving range with them and hit some balls and then the next day is incredibly sore because my body’s not used to it. My wrist or elbow is sore. It’s not doing for me but for you, it’s this delightful thing, it’s more than that. Please tell me.
When I started graduate school in 1999, I’m a swimmer. I’ve been a swimmer for a year. There was a guy who swam in the pool next to me and he was a good golfer but I was a good swimmer and he wanted to learn to swim and I wanted to learn how to golf. We bought some cheap clubs from Target for $99 and I got three lessons and I played twice. I took a twenty-year hiatus and then picked up the sport. I was walking through the airport one day and saw this guy with a great smile and I come to find out he was a golfer. I was like, “I’m going to start being a golfer.”
I started golfing because he golfed. We didn’t work out. He gave me the gift of golf, but there are some people that love the sport and I’m not that. I don’t love the sport but there is a level of intellectual curiosity that exists on the golf course. I volunteer at a golf course on Wednesdays. You’ve got to understand the culture before you study the culture. I hear the most sexist comments on the golf course and I’m like, “Here’s a man that’s old enough to be my grandfather. Do I check him for him talking about my legs or my behind?” There were a lot of women that are golfers that join women’s leagues so they don’t have to be harassed on the golf course.
There’s also this assumption where if you don’t have the right paraphernalia, you probably are going to be assumed to not be a good golfer. The class dynamics, you’ve got to buy the most expensive golf outfits and golf clubs and if you don’t, there’s a hidden assumption that’s class and then races. I’ve played at some of the best country clubs across the country. When we come and I show up with our black faces, there’s an assumption that we’re going to slow up the pace of play or the golf marshal is going to keep coming around the course. Race, class, and gender play a huge role in golf. Therefore, I write myself a book about the racial class and gender dynamics in golf.
Are you able to write off playing golf for as a business expense?
Yes. I have a wealth manager.
Your interest in this is personal because golf is a challenging sport. I always thought golf has something special about it, especially if you live a busy, stressful life. It’s relaxing and you’re outside with fresh air and sun.
It’s an analytical sport because we had people that are going to try then hit the ball with brute force and you’re not going to get there, but if you think of it as a mind game, it’s much easier to hit the ball. I hit relatively well. I’ve been playing for a year.
I think the thing about that is fascinating as I hear you talk about this is people talk about meritocracies and what they would say is, “If you’re a good golfer, you are going to be accepted.” The problem is there are all these things happening. First of all, it’s difficult to tell if anybody’s a good golfer or not. They use all these other cues like how good your clubs are, how good your outfit is and what clubs you’re golfing at.
There are all these social markers.
Whether you’re a male or a female, whether you’re older or young or whether you’re all these kinds of things.
It’s funny because when I started, I started taking lessons on June 4, 2019. I took six more lessons. I know what I’m doing, but I wore the same outfit. I had one outfit. I kept saying that this is not about my swag. It’s about my swing because there is a class dynamic to it. Now, I have two outfits. I think what happens is that if you don’t have those social markers, you are hesitant to even come and play golf because you think that you’re not going to fit in. Golf has already excluded black people. We’re going to now exclude poor people and continue to exclude women. No.
I’m going to venture a guess. I feel like skiing has the same element to it. A premium on your sticks, on your skis, on your outfit, the mountain you’re on, and so on where I think like you’re on the chairlift with someone and they’re looking down at your skis and sledding you.
Golf was the exact same way. There are certain assumptions that are inherent when you see certain people looking in certain ways, carrying certain clubs, certain kinds of outfits and having certain skin colors too.
The last thing I want to talk to you about is this idea of singleism. I’m eager to talk to a sociologist about this idea. There’s been emerging work on how single people are stereotyped and discriminated against. My sense of this is this is real. It’s well-documented. It passes the sniff test face validity, but then also good scholars have looked at this. I think the response to this often is yes, but there are much bigger isms that we need to be tackling like sexism, racism, heterosexism, the big three. I want to get your reaction to that as a sociologist. I’ve been working through some ideas and I want to work through them with you and get your professional and personal opinion on them. I want to know your initial reaction to that statement, “Yes but it’s not that bad compared to.”
The way I have to answer this as a sociologist is that race is the master status. You’re probably going to see my race and/or my gender first. Race and gender are probably going to be the master statuses, but that’s not just that the other ones are not important. For the most part, when I walk into the room, you’re probably going to see a black woman.
First versus the singleness, sexuality orientation, etc. I understand.
I’m not saying that those aren’t important, but from what we know from the literature. Race and gender are the two most master status that most people typically see.
It’s because they’re the most obvious. Any other reactions to it?
I do believe that singleism is real and we need to talk about it more. We don’t talk about it enough. It almost becomes the oppression Olympics. It’s like, “We’ve got racism, sexism and now you want to throw singleism.” I’m like, “It’s because it exists. We are all rushing that we forget who’s more oppressed.” One of the things I have to say is in the middle of COVID, things might change. I might feel this way so a month from now, I might have a different perspective because things change in COVID.
The first idea has come up previously and it’s something that I learned back when I was in student affairs, which is we should fight singleism for the same reasons that we fight racism, sexism, and heterosexism. It’s a form of oppression that it’s holding people back. It’s wrong to do. We should be giving people equal opportunities. That’s the first idea. If you buy into one form of oppression, if you want to fight one form of oppression, you should want to fight all forms of oppression. As a philosophical thing, MLK talked about this.
The second one is that singleism interacts with the master statuses that is women suffer more from singleism than men do. You get the “Kris, you’re great. Why aren’t you married?” More than, “Pete, why aren’t you married?” The people who do are less likely to say that to me than to you. If you’re interested in helping women, if you’re interested in helping people of color, fighting singleism indirectly helps. The third one is we should be celebrating singleness in the same way that we celebrate other forms of diversity because diversity is good for our communities.
It’s good for the country. It’s good for the world. The evidence, the value of diversity is incredibly clear when it comes to innovation, when it comes to science, and nearly every positive thing that we’re looking for. Because single people have different needs, different perspectives, different wants, and values, they bring something different to the table. It’s worth it to try to find ways to help those people thrive.
Those are three great ideas. The first one I would emphatically push back against because being black in America, there’s a cumulative disadvantage that exists in America along racial lines. It’s been around for a long time and is how America was built. If we put singlehood up there with racism, structural racism and the cumulative disadvantage, I think we’re doing a disservice to the way in which America was built and the white supremacy that was built on.
Are you saying this because is it a philosophical belief or do you believe this is zero-sum that there are only many units to fight oppression so we need to rank them and focus on the most important one?
How about the most egregious ones? I think racism is the most egregious. I guess maybe we would have to possibly rank them. Oppression is bad, regardless but if you’re ranking them, racism is a much more salient conversation than singleism. When I walk in the room, you see my race, you see gender. We know about the wage gap. We know that there’s a gender wage gap in America where women make $0.80 on the dollar that every man makes. That’s structural. That’s not going to wear. That’s been around for a while. Singleness and singleism is a newer concept that’s showing up. That wage gap has been around for a while. I was like structural racism. Devah Pager was a sociologist. She did this great study and she found that black men with a college degree were less likely to get a call back for a job interview than a white man with a criminal record.
These things are crazy. These resume studies are appalling where they take the same resume, they changed the name and you get wildly different behavior.
That’s been around for a while. Those things have been around. This singleism is a newer concept and you don’t necessarily know my single status when I walk into the room, but I can’t take off my race. The last one I thought was interesting too.
Being single is a form of diversity and because we ought to value diversity, we should try to uplift people. I think it’s fair. I’m working through these ideas. Dr. Kris Marsh, I am over the moon talking to you about this stuff. It is fascinating. You’re doing important work. I want to wish you well in the book. I look forward to getting it when it comes out. Is there any parting thought as you’re processing the stuff that we’ve been talking about that I’ve overlooked that you think is important for this particular audience?
I don’t think there are any parting thoughts that I want to give.
Thank you so much for your time.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
- Kris Marsh
- Not Lonely. Onely – Previous episode
- Divorce mediator/lawyer – previous episode
- Money Amy – previous episode
- Leighann Lord – Previous episode
- People with Parents
- Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers
- Happy Singlehood
- Previous Episode – Solo Thoughts 4 – Fitting Success Into a Remarkable Life
- Urban Tribes
- Never Split the Difference
About Kris Marsh
Kris Marsh is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fullbright Scholar, her research focuses on the Black middle class, demography, racial residential segregation, and education. She is a contributor to CNN in America, the Associated Press, NBC Washington, and Al Jazeera America and is frequently asked to contribute to the Washington Post. Kris writing a book that examines the mental and physical health, wealth, residential choices and dating practices of an emerging Black middle class that is single and living alone.
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