The first of a three-part series that looks at singles in the marketplace, this episode examines the rise of singles. Peter invites a return guest, sociologist and demographer Kris Marsh, to talk about the demographic and cultural changes behind the steep rise of singles and singles living alone – not only in the US, but abroad. They conclude by discussing the implications of these changes for a future that looks bright for people who want to live single and live well.
Listen to Episode #51 here:
The Rise Of Single Living
This episode is the first of a three-part series that looks at singles in the marketplace. This episode examines the rise of single living, next is presents the business of selling the singles, and the last which will coincide with Single’s Day, what happens to be the biggest selling day on the planet examines the best innovations for single people. I invite a return guest, a sociologist and demographer, Kris Marsh to talk about the demographic and cultural changes behind the steep rise of singles and singles living alone, not only in the United States but abroad.
We conclude by discussing the implication of these changes for a future that looks bright for people who want to live single and live well. Thanks for your support. If you’ve missed it, our private Slack channel, our community is up and running. It’s invite-only but we would love to have you. If you haven’t applied to be part of the Solo community, you can do that on the Solo page of PeterMcGraw.org. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our return guest is Kris Marsh. Kris is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. A Fulbright scholar whose 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, Al Jazeera America, and is 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. You may remember her from episode 46, Meet the Love Jones Cohort in which we talk about this as I call it the forthcoming book. Welcome back.
Peter, it’s great to be back. Thank you for having me.
This is the first installment of a three-part series that looks at the singles in the marketplace. I asked you back quickly because this episode kicks off the series by examining the rise of single people, both demographically and culturally. This is what you do for a living looking at these kinds of trends. For people who haven’t checked your previous episode, I’m sure they’re going to rush out after this but in the meantime, can you tell them a little bit more about your background?
I’m a sociologist and a demographer. One of the things I was exciting to me as a scholar is that I wanted to talk about and bring narratives to the table and to social science that aren’t normally there. To do work on the black middle class, I’m automatically looking at a demographic group that people don’t look at much. Within the black middle class, I was seeing that there was this demographic shift away from married couples to people that were young, professional, they weren’t married, and they didn’t have any children.
I call that group The Love Jones Cohort. It’s based on a movie that was produced in the early ‘90s. I wanted to know more about the black middle class especially those that are in the Love Jones Cohort. I’ve done quantitative work and now I’m doing qualitative work where I’ve collected interviews with nearly 70 or 80 respondents who are in the Love Jones Cohort. I’m presently working, finishing up, and finalizing the book so we can get a better understanding of the black middle class and this demographic shift that we’re seeing happen.
The rise of the Love Jones Cohort is part of a broader rise of solace or singles and those who are living alone. We should start with some definitions. For the audience, this is going to be a little wonky at times because you’ve got two mega nerds on the line.
I own mine.
That’s what makes it cool is owning it. We’re going to start with some definitions. We’re going to discuss some of these demographic changes and why they’re happening and also, talk about some of the cultural changes and why. At times, I may call them psychographic changes. This is marketing speak. One of the things that I talk about in my class is businesses are focused on demographics and that’s because you can measure them. The 18 to 34-year-old single males in urban areas like this, that or whatever. What is often more valuable is to understand these cultural or psychographic differences because that tells you not who is making choices but why they’re making choices. As I like to say, “You can have two people who look exactly the same on paper but because of their gray matter, they have wildly different preferences.” To understand these shifts, you have to understand the culture behind the scenes.
Since I am a sociologist, I would argue that you also have to understand structure because when you think about singlehood, you have to think about singlehood from a race perspective. Some people may be coming to singlehood by choice versus by force. Hopefully, we will talk about that.
In addition to your book and our prior episode, there’s going to be some resources that I drew on as I prepped this and I’m going to put these all in the exhibits. One of them is an outstanding book by Elyakim Kislev, he’s an Israeli sociologist. He has a book called Happy Singlehood. I drew heavily on that book as well as I emailed him and he graciously provided some thoughtful comments. Moreover, a 2017 paper by Keith Snell, which is also part of a data post in Our World, some Pew Center Research, a US News and World Report, and then from the godmother of singlehood, Bella DePaulo in some of her writing as well as the Relationship Escalator episode and the Defining Solo episode. I list those all out knowing that I wasn’t plucking all of this stuff out of thin air.
I do think it’s important to acknowledge that Elyakim did his PhD at NYU.
Why is that important?
You say that he was an Israeli sociologist but he trained in the US as well.
He’s at Hebrew University. Once you’re Israeli, you’ve already got the academic chops most of the time.
I wanted to add texture to it because he spent time in the US as time in Israel so he has both contexts to draw from.
Let’s talk about some definitions. I’m curious if these gels with your definition of what is single. I have not married or in a long-term partnership, also includes people who are widowed and divorced. Not eloquent but good.
Not married or never married?
Not married, widowed, divorced, and not in a long-term partnership is the better way to say it.One out of four Millennials are projected to never marry. Click To Tweet
For me, I’m looking at people that are single and have never been married. I do believe that there’s a difference between having once been married and having never been married. There’s a big difference between 0 and 1. I’m trying to capture the 0 versus the 1.
I have plenty of divorced or soon to be divorced audience.
That’s been a COVID effect.
That’s what we have discussed. It tends to coincide with being single but not necessarily. This came up in the Relationship Escalator with Amy Gahran. She said that you can be in a partnership but to be solo, that has had this solo mentality that one that’s focused on freedom and autonomy. You may have a partner but you may not live with that person, be monogamous, have consistency with that partner, and so on. That was a big insight for me. Solo is a big tent, so to speak. It includes single people and it can also include unconventionally partnered people. As an example, Amy is SoloPoly in which she lives in a house with roommates. She has two partners who live elsewhere. One of which I believe is monogamous with her, the other one isn’t, she identifies as solo, and as result fits under this umbrella.
That is a wide umbrella. To shake it up a little bit, if you use the word partner, an argument can be made that you’re not solo. They know we’re having a conversation. This is a thought process.
If you’re using the term partner the way we think about partners using Amy’s relationship escalator metaphor which is a partner relationship has consistency. It starts and it’s not supposed to ever end, at least if there’s someone dies. You live together, you merge your finances. Monogamy so there are no other sexual partners. This idea of special status that that partnership stands above others like it’s more important than your childhood friendship or that kind of thing.
Amy’s argument which I like loosening the reigns on this a little bit because people who have an unconventional relationship that deviates from one of those criteria don’t fit well in the regular world. Having a non-merging or focus on autonomy has a solo mentality even though you have someone who you wouldn’t identify as single perhaps. It’s messy. It’s complicated. Let’s suppose you are in an unconventional relationship, non-monogamous, you live together, in some ways, you have more in common with single people than you do with married people.
The part that we’re missing is the people that don’t want to be in a relationship. You have people under this large umbrella of solo who are in relationships, nontraditional, nuance, people that don’t want relationships, aren’t looking for relationships, and it all falls under the same title. It’s a little messy and slippery.
The issue is I want to provide an alternative to that traditional marriage partnership. When I first launched this, I was thinking about singles according to the definition that we set out. I was thinking too about singles who want to be happy about their singlehood, thriving, and see it not as a temporary stop to something more important or better. These are people who have a positive orientation about their single living. They see it at least equal and you might have a different chapter.
Should you partner up all the way to someone who’s like, “I’m a loner. I like being alone and I never want to be in a partnership.” I’m saying, “Come one, come all, we’ll have you, take you, and support you.” Let’s talk first about some demographic changes. How many single adults in the United States and how has it changed? One hundred and twenty-eight million single adults in the US, that’s 51% of the adult population. That’s a striking number. The top three states are Louisiana, Rhode Island, and New York with 55% to 56% of their adult population single. Kris is trying to figure out why.
I get New York. How about Louisiana and Rhode Island?
I don’t exactly know why. You have to take into account. Some of it is age because younger people tend to be single. It could also be older people tend to be single so there’s a lot of single older women. Do you want to guess the state with the lowest rate of singles? I can give you a tip if you want to.
Give me a hint.
It’s a religious state.
Correct, 43.7%. It’s a 12% swing between the top and the bottom. International, you’re seeing a rise in singles, too. This is striking to me. Two hundred million singles in China, 14%. That excuse male as you might guess because of the one-child policy back in the day and the projections are these numbers are going to continue to grow. The Pew Center Research suggests that 1 out of 4 Millennials are projected to never marry. That’s one that’s been increasing and then something you’re interested in people living alone. This number is on the rise, too. It’s been exponential.
Twenty-eight percent of households in the United States contained one person. There’s been a five-fold increase since 1960 from 7 million to 36 million. This number is even higher in many European countries and cities. Tokyo also has high levels but Sweden is number one with Stockholm is the number one city where that number is close to 50%. That’s why the Swedes thought they could not do lockdown for COVID. This is honestly like a hockey stick over time seeing this increase that’s there.
A male versus female, there are two things that are happening besides the doubling and the number of people who are projected not to marry. There’s a gender gap. Men are more likely to never marry and both numbers are going up but the difference is going from 2% to about 5% difference. As you know, these differences are even bigger for the black community. What we’re seeing is this explosion in the number of single people and people living alone, and this is happening not just in the United States but is happening in many other places especially Europe. Elyakim, in his book, puts forth eight reasons for the rise.
What I thought we could do is go through each of them, discuss that, and talk about what those are. This is in the Happy Singlehood book. The first one that he lists is this shift in demographics that the birth rates are going down that marriages are happening later in life. You have more single people because as soon as you get married, you’re not a single person anymore. If you delay marriage 5, 10 years, we are going to have more people in that bubble. It’s easier to divorce nowadays than it used to be. More people are finding themselves single on the other side of a marriage and then people are living longer because women tend to outlive men by a substantial margin. Still, the longer you live, the more single people you have on the planet. Does that gel with your understanding and thoughts on this stuff?
All of that makes sense. A couple of things. One, you have people that are delaying marriage or they’re marrying later in life. Therefore, you have a higher proportion of people that are going to be single and single longer. On the other end, you have people that are dying off. You have couples that are dying off, one person in a couple is dying, the other person is in their singlehoodness because their partner is gone. All of that is true and I appreciate all of that but what is interesting is that at some point, everybody is going to be single.
We’ve talked about this before. I’m a woman so I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. A white person won’t know what like to be a black person. If we’re lucky to live long enough, we’ll know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of our age. If we’re over the age of eighteen, we will all be single at some point in our life. In the first part of our life, we spend more time in that singleness or we are partnered to get married and then towards the end of our life, we return back to singleness but at some point, everybody has touched singleness.
You would think, for example, if a white person had to live a year as a black person and then they got converted back to being white, if that person was prejudice before that experience, they’re likely to be less prejudice after the experience. What you’re saying is, “That happens with single people.” You lived single then you become a married person and then you perpetuate the prejudice against single people even though you experienced it.
Not everybody goes through that partnering stage but for the most part, people are going to leave singlehood and come back to singlehood. People stay there their entire lives. It’s an interesting dynamic that no other concepts can we wrap our mind around like that.
The next one is the change in women’s roles. We’re focused mostly on the United States here but this is also worldwide. Women are putting off marriage. First of all, there’s less pressure to marry. At one point, it was overwhelming. You had to do it. Otherwise, you’re a pariah. Access to education and opportunities in the workplace so there’s a chance to thrive on your own as a result of that. There’s less of a negative opinion of single women if you’re comparing it to previously.
Look at what’s happening in Saudi Arabia. You’re seeing changes even in places that there are vast inequalities and then access to birth control and fertility treatment. You can delay getting married, you can freeze your eggs, you have more optionality as a single woman if you want to have a family, you don’t have to rely on getting married, and so on. The change in women’s standing in society is releasing some of that pressure.
I agree with most of the points. I want to add a little texture and a little nuance to it. What happens in the social sciences is that we know that class status is usually transferred from parent to child.
What does that mean?
If you’re a middle class, your children are going to be middle class. You used to think of it as husband and wife or husband being the breadwinner in the family and it’s a middle-class household, the children become middle-class, and so on and so forth. You then had more women that were joined the labor force. As they had economic independence, they were trying to decide whether or not marriage meant the same thing to them and they wanted to marry.
When we see women coming into the labor market, that’s when you’re starting to see a rise in singlehood are singles because women are like, “I don’t necessarily have to be married. I can be middle class and do well. I can be the primary breadwinner and I can be okay. I can also have children by myself. I don’t need a partner or a husband. I can do this myself.” You mentioned something about the stigma of women being single has changed over time. I appreciate that. I do believe that it has changed and it’s getting better.
I appreciate a platform like this because we’re talking about singles. I also think that it’s not just women that had a stigma about being single. The stigma is different for men and women but there’s a stigma across the board. Women are thought of as being the cat lady or the old maid but a man that is single is thought of as being a gigolo. It’s noncommittal and is out there playing in the field. There are stigmas on both sides. We’re talking about men and women. It’s not a one-way conversation. It’s a bi-directional conversation between the genders on stigma. With those advances in the white workforce labor market as well as technological advances, a woman has many more options and opportunities. They can carve their own path that works best for them and not think of that traditional graduate from college, get married, have 2.5 kids, and so on and so forth.
Number three, he states as risk-aversion due to the risk of divorce. That is divorce is bad, I want to get this right. Let’s avoid starter marriages. It’s my translation of it. “I don’t think we should be getting married at 25. Let’s get some things sorted out here.”
I think that has something to do with it because we have such high divorce rates in America.
I’m amazed that the threat of divorce doesn’t have a bigger effect on people’s choice to marry.
Whenever someone tells me that they’re divorced, I say, “Congratulations.” The stigma associated with divorce is the cost, the wealth destruction, the psychological, there’s research on the health toll that it creates, the identity crisis it creates, and so on because marriage is set up especially through the government to force you to stay together as much as possible. To do that form of the breakup is painful. The thought is let’s enter this with a little bit more trepidation than we do already.
I would argue that the stigma of divorce has decreased some because you have such a high percentage of divorce now. I would hope if it hasn’t that we’re moving in that direction. The reason being is because you don’t want people to stay in a toxic relationship because they don’t want to experience divorce. I’d much rather you deal with the trauma of divorce than deal with the trauma of staying in a toxic relationship.
This is the problem with the relationship escalator because we judge the quality of a relationship by the amount of time that you’ve spent in it. A 30-year relationship that ends in a divorce is better than a seven-year relationship that ends in a divorce.
The 30-year relationship only had two good years. I’d rather have seven that were great or 6 out of the 7 that were great as opposed to 2 out of 30 or 3 out of 3. What percentage is that? That’s a pointless relationship.
That change is good so a bit more risk-aversion there. Number four, economics, consumerism, and capitalism. This is a preview for the second of this three-part series on singles in the marketplace where I’m going to do an episode on the best innovation for singles. That is what are the things that have changed in the world, what have been invented, and so on that makes it easier to be single. These are things like more people can afford to live on their own. It’s easier to do that. Capitalism allows people to pursue their own interests.
That is, you can build a business if you want. It’s easier to have your needs met because the world is getting better at giving us stuff that we want. There are things like the invention of dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers. Suddenly, you can throw a load in and go to work rather than have to stick around all the time where you needed a familial unit to run a household. The change in jobs that is there’s more mobility, more flexibility, the rise of the gig economy. There’s more you can do that allow you to escape the normal pressures of the nuclear family.
One way to think about economics is to think about want versus need. We had an economy or capitalism where you needed to be married or you needed to be a partner. When you look at economics or capitalism, you want to be married but it’s not a need. You have a different perspective on whether or not you decide to partner when it’s something that you want versus something that you need. Traditionally, it was needed but now it’s wanted.
If this feels a little too abstract to someone, the best way to think about it is the move from farms, factories to service-based economies. Farms demand families. You have someone who’s caring for a household and creating babies. Those babies become children and adults who help on the farm. People going off into factory work and then now, we sit in front of our computers and type on them a bunch.
You even mentioned how we’re in a capitalist society where we can afford to live alone by ourselves. Maybe you couldn’t afford to buy a house by yourself so you needed a partner, husband, wife but now we’re in a space where you can buy a house on your own and you don’t need it. If you have that person in the house, it’s because they want it, they’re not needed.
Number five. This is a big part of the show. We previewed this one, shifts in religiosity. Religious cultures tend to be focused on families. I’ve heard this lament from a number of singles who are religious who feel that churches are missing opportunities by being family-focused and honestly, marginalizing their singles. What’s fascinating is Elyakim talks about this dual effect. The first one is with a decrease in religiosity. You’re seeing this in Europe. This is on display. It releases you from that pressure of coupling up. The other one is for some religions, they’re strict about it that people avoid it. People talk about these covenant marriages. These marriages that they make almost bombproof, it’s hard to get out of it. You’re like, “Why would I do that?”
We think about religiosity. I’ll talk about the black church in particular and it resonates with all religious organizations. They don’t have a ministry or an outreach for singles beyond telling you like, “Here’s how you remain single and you stay holy. You remain single and you stay religious. You remain single and you stayed saved in the eyes of God.” They don’t talk about developing the single person. It’s about putting you in a holding pattern until you’re partnered. That is incredibly problematic especially if we dovetail back to the earlier demographics you gave us about the rise of singles across the globe but we’re still having this conversation about like, “Here’s what you do until you get partnered.” The churches missed the mark on that one.
The big problem is because churches are generally focused on monogamy that singles don’t fit well. What’s fascinating is you are allowed a period of non-monogamy in search of monogamy. It’s okay to play the field a little bit until you lock it in. The idea that if you’re going to give up monogamy totally and wholly, churches struggle with this because you’ve got the potential for your singles in the congregation to be sinners in that sense but I do think it’s a missed opportunity.
If you’re primarily interested in saving souls which should be the number one priority of religious organizations, it shouldn’t be donations, then you’re missing opportunities to create a welcoming environment for religious singles who have chosen a different path. Number six, as previewed in the Love Jones Cohort, popular culture and media. That is what we’re seeing more positive messages about singles.
You talked about the work that you’ve done was previewed in the ’90s and the aughts in the media. We can talk about the white side of things, Sex and the City, Friends, even this show, for example, as we talked about. There’s a Facebook page called the Community Of Single People that is not focused on dating. It is a group that’s focused on living single. There was a time where you turned on the TV and there was Leave It to Beaver. There was nothing about single people. If there was, it portrayed them in some non-normative sense.
The media has a good handle on these demographic shifts. Social scientists are slow to get on board with the rise of singles but media had it on lock. They understand what was happening. You saw those demographic shifts and now we’re starting to see the social science catch-ups what media has already done.
The one question I have is who is going to be the genius who creates a rom-com that has a satisfying end without the two protagonists coupling up.
Are you sure there’s some out there? I don’t watch rom-com so I don’t know specifically for that reason. I’m sure there have to be some out there. If not, you’ve read it here first, we’re going to produce one.
I’ve thought about how to do that. I always joke that When Harry Met Sally, the rom-com with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. If they ever did the sequel, it was going to be When Sally Divorces Harry. It would’ve been good. There’s still time. This one is a quick one. Urbanization, the rise of people living in cities. Fifty percent of the US population lives in urban areas. This is a worldwide trend. Urban living is good for single people. One of the great inventions for the rise of single living is the invention of the apartment building. This is a place that you can get an affordable space that is safe, has amenities, has an all-in-one small footprint, and it lends itself to mobility. It’s easy to switch apartments and switch cities as a result of that versus owning a home. Less up heap and all of those things.
I do think it’s important to provide the other side of the conversation. It’s easy for urban dwellers to be single but it’s problematic and troubling for people in rural parts of America where they’re choosing to be single and they don’t have the resources and support system to be single. I want to make sure we acknowledge that. Hopefully, we can get to those spaces where it’s easy to be single wherever you want to live whether it’s rural or urban, you’ll feel comfortable in those spaces.
Part of the reason on the urban side of things is it’s welcoming to singles and unwelcoming to families. There’s a traditional arc that happens where you’re young and single. You go off to New York City to build your fortune, you go to Chicago. You live downtown, you have this walkable life, you go out to dinner a lot, you go to your gym, you meet people, and you’re having fun. You get married, you have some kids, and then you start moving further out into the suburbs. You end up going to the city less. At some point, you’re an empty nester and you have this big house. Where do you go? Perhaps back to the city.
We are starting to see some single people in suburban areas as well.
The last one is immigration which is interesting. Immigration delays marriage. People are coming from new countries tend to hold off as they’re trying to make their way. This is something I learned and help settle a debate that I’ve been having with a friend. He works in the world of finance and he wants more babies. Babies lead to growth, it’s “good” for the economy, and I argue, “We don’t want more babies. We want immigration. We want to be able to bring people into the country and people who have skills that are going to contribute to the economy and so on.” This is the kicker, Kris. Immigrants create businesses at twice the rate of people in the country which is a striking statistic.
That’s important that we talk about that because there’s this push-pull factor with immigrants. You think that they’re always pulling all the resources but you don’t talk about how they’re adding. That’s the conversation that we need to have. It’s not always a pull. They do add to the economy as well. We need to say that and we don’t.
I agree with that, especially in the United States. It was a country built on immigrants. We have the data that suggests some of those benefits.
It’s wise. If you’re in a new space, you’re trying to get your foot in. The last thing you want to do is try to partner with someone because you aren’t solid yourself and we often do that. We partner with someone if we don’t have our footing yet. You have a relationship that’s on shaky ground but once you’re solid, you’re in place. Not for immigrants or anybody. Whenever it’s solid and in place means and you have your footing, then if you decide you want to partner with someone do but don’t use the partner to give you your footing.
This is related to your research. The thing that was striking about the work that you did is when two low-income people get married, they don’t create a middle-class household. They create a low-income household with two people.
People think marriage is like this panacea. It’s automatically going to catapult you to middle-class status. That’s not the case. Two poor getting married doesn’t automatically catapult you. Those are two poor people that are coming together with debt and low-income, and it does not automatically make you middle-class.
I emailed Elyakim about this list. I asked him which of these does he think is the biggest influence? I’m going to read his response and then get your response. He said, “I didn’t test them in a comparative method and it’s almost impossible to do it. However, my gut tells me the considerations of individualism and self-fulfillment are high on the list especially the women feel they have more opportunities now and they want to pursue that path.” Kris, I’m curious what your reaction to that is.
I appreciate the point that he’s making that he can’t statistically test that. I get that and I understand that. If we think about what we know as social scientists, the labor market and economic independence of women opens up opportunities for them that they did not have before especially thinking about the death of notorious RBG. It’s important that we think about women and their economic freedom.
To me, I tend to agree. People are tired of me saying it is. I say that marriage is overprescribed. There’s pressure to do it even though it might not be a fit. What you’re talking about is we are removing the need. If you can remove the need to get married, now we’re left with the want. There’s still too much pressure on the wanting, but at least, it becomes a choice versus eventuality. Let’s talk about these psychographic and cultural changes. I asked him another question. I said, “Singles are a diverse group. An 80-year-old widow, a 19-year-old college kid, a 50-year-old divorced woman, with or without children, lifelong bachelors, loners, etc. The demographically psychographically, their values or lifestyle, how do you classify these people along what dimensions?”
As we were talking at the beginning, it’s a big tent. I have a 22-year-old male audience, a 67-year-old widow, SoloPoly people, and so on. I want to be welcoming to all of them. He says, “This is a tough question because overall, we do see changes with age and marital status but it still varies a lot even by state.” There are states that the average marriage age is much lower than California or New York thus expectations are a social pressure to me. This is obvious. You go to the Midwest and you’re struck by the number of twenty-somethings who are wearing wedding rings. If you’re in Los Angeles, they’re impossible to find.
He said, “I want to challenge this question and divide the population according to other criteria.” This is something that you’ve alluded to already, Kris. These are, “How do you deal with your singlehood? What story do you tell yourself about your singlehood? Do you feel regretful, missing out, ashamed? Do you feel it serves your freedom, it gives you more time to invest in your friends, relatives, and develop yourself? When I wrote Happy Singlehood and did the research for the book, it became apparent that these are the real divides that make two distinct populations of singles. Those were generally satisfied with their life and those who are depressed and feel lonely.” That’s consistent with some statistics that show upwards of 15% of single say they are single by choice that will identify in the States. What’s your reaction to that idea?
Elyakim gives great responses. I’m not real big on trying to put people in boxes or categories. I want to be welcoming to anybody that considers themselves to be solo but I want to go back to the conversation we had when we were talking about never married. Anybody is welcome in the category but I do believe that there needs to be a special place for those that have never married and don’t want to be married versus those that are returning to singlehood. I’d like to make that distinction. I believe that there was a substantive difference between those who have done it and those who have never done it. I will not value judgment on this. I’m saying there’s a substantive difference.
There’s a difference in experience and perspective. The world tends to value someone who got married and divorced more than someone who never married.
That’s why we have this show, why Elyakim wrote his book, why I am writing my book, and why we do the work that we do because we have to move past that. We’ve got to push back against that narrative. Another part of what Elyakin said and I want to reiterate what he said is like, “I’d much rather have the conversation of how are you celebrating your singleness as opposed to how are you surviving your singleness.” How do you define your singleness? It’s like, “You define yourself as singleness. How you celebrate that? Let us know how you’re celebrating that.”
I’m going to repeat back what you said. We had one of these moments in our first episode together, we had another one. This is the question that people need to answer. How are you celebrating your singlehood? That’s a powerful question. How are you surviving it? That has been one of the biggest changes that there are more people looking to celebrate. A friend gave me a book called The Challenges of Being Single. The book was written in the early 1970s. The book nowadays should be called The Opportunities Of Being Single.
That encompasses the shift that we’re seeing. We’re seeing this shift in other ways. This is a Pew Research Centers study of 5,000 adult singles that breaks the stereotype that single people want to be partnered but can’t seem to do it. The normal narrative is, “You’re single, you poor thing.” “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you pull this off?” Fifty percent of respondents are not interested in a committed relationship nor do they want to date. That’s a striking number. It’s a big tent.
If you ask a 65-year-old divorced person, they’re a part of these singles. Fourteen percent are looking for a committed, romantic relationship. There’s a lot of people not on the apps. At first, I was like, “This is a COVID or a pandemic effect.” It’s not. They did a similar study years ago and the results are nearly identical. Talk about breaking some stereotypes. We don’t know why they’re not looking for relationships or all of that stuff, but it breaks the stereotype that 128 million single people searching for their soulmate and sadly can’t find it.
I like that statistic.
Let’s finish here by talking about some implications of these changes and previewing some subsequent episodes in this three-part series. I’m going to ask you to do something fun but you’re not going to want to do it because you’re an academic. The book, The Challenges of Being Single, came out many years ago. Let’s talk about where the world is headed. It’s hard to predict the future but I don’t see any reason why we’re going to go back to a 90% marriage rate. I’m going to open this up to you. Where are we going to see continued changes, continued improvements in single living, more people embracing their singlehood by choice, their celebrative nature rather than survival?
How do you survive or prepare for singleness? How do you prepare or navigate? When you say words like navigate, prepare, survive, those could have negative connotations but when you flip it and say, “Talk about how you celebrate it,” then you don’t have to worry about surviving it, navigating it, performing it, or whatever.
What are you thinking about 46 more years in the future? Is there going to be a book that’s going to be titled The Challenges Of Being Married?
That might be the case. I don’t know what 46 years are going to look like from here. One of the things that I think is important is, let’s contextualize the moment that we’re in and we’re in this COVID moment. You have a lot of people that are single, living alone in some cases, and they’re doing okay during COVID. There’s some that might have some challenges but you have some people that are partnered where it gets back to whether your partner because you want to be or need to be. We are going to see what we know from the demographic literature a rise in divorce rates on the other side of this thing. That’s going to continue. People are going to say like, “I’m not going to get married. I don’t need to get married. I don’t want to get married.” Singlehood is going to be the norm in the next years, I would argue. Fertility rates are much lower as well.
There’s no doubt about that. It’s going to happen especially as we were talking about earlier with greater opportunity. If you look at university attendance, how many more women than men are going to college these days? How much does that bode well for women’s economic freedom? We’re going to find more of that.
I’m thinking about the actual global warming. Some people are like, “I don’t want to have children in this climate because we don’t know what’s going to happen with global warming.” They’re making informed celebratory decisions to say, “I’m not going to have children at this time.”
I’m surprised that it took me this long as a behavioral economist to puzzle over this question of why people are optimistic about their lives but pessimistic about the world. It’s pessimism about the world that can lead to decisions like the one you were talking about which is I decided I’m not going to have children.The world tends to value someone who got married and divorced more than someone who never married. Click To Tweet
I don’t know that there’s data out there but it will be interesting to see what happens over the next many years.
Anecdotally, it seems to be the case but I also know a whole bunch of people who said they were going to move to Canada and they haven’t gone yet. I do think that there is going to be this idea that more singles beget more singles as businesses and governments start to become aware that this is a powerful spending group of people that you’re going to start to see the world’s starting to fine-tune more for them.
Some of it is then the rise of media. You’re going to start to have more pro-single television shows, pro-single podcasts, or more of this. There’s always one person at the dinner table at Thanksgiving who is never married, no kids person, who’s feeling all this pressure. If we double that number, there are two people at the table, you’ve got an alliance. You can push back on those ideas. One of the things that are striking is the mythology of marriage. It’s starting to break down. We’re starting to see more in people aware of research like yours that suggests that marriage can be good but it’s not blissful and everything. This stuff will snowball a bit as you were saying.
One of the points that I want to make, it’s great that you mentioned, and it dovetails with the book. One of the chapters in my book focuses on wealth. How people in the black middle class are single and living alone? How they acquire wealth and how they disseminate wealth? When we think about businesses, it’s important that wealth management companies think about trying to help people that are single. Think about how they’re going to manage their wealth, living trust, and wills. You don’t have a partner, you may not have children, you may have a divorced partner, who are you going to transfer your wealth to? That’s an important question. For singles, just because you’re not partnered doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a formal document in place to say where you want all of your assets to go.
Thank you for bringing that up because that previews another mini-series that I’m planning about aging, retiring and dying solo. In the dying one, we’re going to talk about how do you create a will for a single person. A single person’s will is not only more complex than a married person’s will but it also can be more fun that there’s more opportunity to do things.
Peter, you can’t put it in the dying section because the argument is that people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s should have wills and living trusts as well.
Except for those people that don’t have many resources.
Whatever you have, you have the right to say where you want it to go. Don’t put a value on their resources.
The moment you’re out of debt, you should have a will. I don’t have a will. My sister hopes I die because she gets everything. The moment I write my will, I’m going to start chipping away at what she’s going to get because I’m going to give it to a broader array of connections.
That’s one way in which we can celebrate our singleness and you’ll feel empowered to say, “I’m a single person. I empower myself. I celebrate my singleness by having myself a will at the age of 33 or 43.” I do have a living trust and I have a will as well. It’s liberating because my parents made me put it together before I went to South Africa or before I went overseas. I was like, “I know where all the little stuff that I do have. I know exactly where it’s going to go.” I can take risks. I can do things. Say something happens, I’m skydiving and it doesn’t work out, I know where everything is going to go. I don’t have to worry about my house or any of that stuff. It has the potential to be liberating because you’re relaxed and resolved that you know where your assets are going to go.
Any final thoughts reflecting on this overall conversation?
The one thing that I have to bring up that we talked about at the beginning and I want to come back to it. I love the whole notion about single and solo. I’m excited about the topic and the momentum that it’s garnering but it’s important that we also talk about the race context. If we look at structural racism especially for black people in America, you have black women who want to marry a black man but because of structural forces, you have a lot of black men that are in jail or may not have comparable degrees as black women. Especially among black women in black America, we have to continue to have the conversation about being single, but understanding whether or not it’s by force or it’s by choice. The structural racism part is another layer of complexity that we have to talk about when we think about singlehood in black America. I know we don’t talk about that now but it is definitely an extra layer of complexity.
I think that that’s important and that is not just in the black community but you’re seeing that in places worldwide. We already alluded to that in China. First of all, a lot of it is still in the farm factory stage of development. When it comes to these farms, these families that have a single boy and he wants to find a partner but he’s unable to find a partner, he may contemplate moving to the city and working in a factory because that gives him a better chance to find a partner. He might consider going to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, or to some other place to try to find a partner.
Those are real challenges in terms of the opportunities that people have depending on where it is. Women not being able to find the partners, they desire in other places. Men not being able to find the partners, they desire. It is interesting when you talk about this. As a Chinese man considering marrying a Filipino woman, for example. In the United States, we have these other racial divides. A black woman who’s looking to marry a black man but then also the reverse that happens which is, if she is interested in white men, she might still find challenges in terms of finding someone. We talked about this. Asian men and black women are discriminated against in the dating pool at higher rates.
Which suggested two of them should get together and we’re done. We got that. We solved the world problem.
We got to get that act together.
What I do think is important is whether or not you’re single by choice or by force, try to celebrate the moment.
We’ll end on this important idea which is, we should not think of our single time in life as less than whether that be before marriage, after marriage or there’s never going to be one. We should think of them as a different time.
We should also think of our singleness as a point where we are happy, healthy, and whole. Once we’re in a partnership, you’ve now had to share yourself so you’re not whole. This is one space where your whole. Enjoy and celebrate that.
Kris, you are great. I am happy we did this.
I’m happy we did it too, Peter. Hopefully, you’ll have me back again.
As soon as I get the right topic, don’t worry. It will happen.
It’s a pleasure.
- Kris Marsh
- Meet the Love Jones Cohort – Previous episode
- Happy Singlehood
- Bella DePaulo
- Relationship Escalator – Previous episode
- Defining Solo – Previous episode
- Community of Single People – Facebook
- The Challenges of Being Single
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