Peter McGraw often talks about how half of the American singles are not interested in a relationship or dating. In other words: it is totally normal to want to date OR to not want to date. In this episode, he speaks to the person who is responsible for these data: Anna Brown, a research associate at the Pew Research Center, as non-partisan, non-advocacy, non-profit. Anna presents some facts, and Peter does some editorializing.
Listen to Episode #84 here:
The Statistics Of Single Living
As you may know, I like to cite some striking statistics about the number of singles in the population. I often talk about how half of the American singles are not interested in dating or relationships at this time. That is, it is normal to want to date and to want to not date. In this episode, I invite the person who is responsible for some of those data. Anna Brown, a research associate at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy and nonprofit. She presents some facts and I do some editorializing. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Anna Brown. She is a research associate at Pew Research Center, where she is involved in all stages of the survey research process, from designing questionnaires to analyzing polling data to writing reports. Her focus is on social and demographic trends. Her research has centered around racial attitudes, dating and relationships, and how the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted Americans’ financial outlooks. Anna received her Bachelor’s Degree in Politics from Oberlin College and a Master’s Degree in Survey Methodology from the University of Maryland. Welcome, Anna.
Thanks for having me.
It’s a great pleasure. We’re going to be talking about the dating and relationship stuff. In particular, I’m focused on what I would call the rise of solos, the rise of single people. Before we get into all of that, how did you become such a nerd?
My background is in Political Science and Survey Methodology. Survey Methodology is one of the nerdiest, most specific things you can study. I’ve been at Pew for several years. I worked in political polling before that. My research interests are racial identity, LGBT Americans, especially dating and relationships. I’m excited to have the opportunity to talk to you.
Polling has gotten a bad name, which is unfair.
I can’t tell you everything. We have some very smart people who are looking into what went wrong and I think we’ll be able to improve it next time.
I’m not criticizing. There is a lot of value in asking people their opinions, their lifestyle, their values, how they spend their time, etc. What exactly is Pew Research Center? It comes up a lot. You folks are great at PR. Congratulations. It’s pretty cool to be able to work on reports. You have an organization that’s good at getting those reports out to the world. For someone who’s only heard of it, what does Pew Research do? What are their goals? What are they good at? What are they not good at?
We’re a nonprofit, non-partisan and non-advocacy organization.
Nonprofit, but you do make money.
We have funders.
Non-partisan, so not right or left?
Yes. We’re not taking any sides. We’re also not advocacy, which means that we don’t make any policy recommendations.
What is the reason for those three nons?
Our goal is to generate a foundation of facts that contributes to public dialogue and sound decision-making. We’re doing the research, we’re coming up with the facts, and it’s up to the rest of the world to interpret it to use that to help build policies.
That’s neat or help them understand what it’s like in the world of singles as I’m trying to do.
I have to tell you, I’m very happy about the non-advocacy part. The reason is, oftentimes, when people are approaching this issue of dating and relationships, in particular, they have a bias, which is a pro-marriage bias. As a result, that colors not only the types of questions that they ask and the people they poll but also the way they present the data and then prescribe based upon those data. I’m doing a lot of stuff with the solo community on Clubhouse, this new audio app. I found myself on a stage with a bunch of pro-marriage advocates who are either sociologists or statisticians or whatever. It was amazing how these academics, not only were they advocating, but they were advocating based upon a lot of correlational research in a truly disturbing way and frankly, out-and-out misleading. I’m a big fan that you folks are non-advocate. I would say non-partisan. I mean, both the right and the left are pro-family but it’s even stronger on at least the religious right that you find these things. Pew Research Center has been around for a long time.
Since the 1990s. It’s a complicated history with a few different projects, all pursuing separate agendas and we unified as one, Pew Research Center. We still have teams who are studying both the global and US population, from religion to technology to politics and more.
You said you’ve been there for many years? That’s great. I have noticed since I’ve started this project, that Pew is one of the best sources of data about singles. The reason I say best is in part because a lot of the research focus is on marriage. Some of the work you have done has been focused on marriage. Some of the stuff is specifically about single living. Was this a strategic decision? Were you the person who spearheaded this? How did this come about?
My team studies all sorts of social and demographic trends. A big one is marriage, family structure and things like that, but the share of unmarried people has been rising. As they become a bigger group, we’ve been devoting a little more of our research agenda to studying them. We’re also recognizing that there’s a rise in other types of arrangements besides marriage. Cohabiting before or instead of marriage, being in a long-term relationship without living together, casually dating, etc. We don’t have any government data that we can analyze on people’s actual relationship status, just their living arrangements and marital status. We’re lucky to be able to do this survey that explores the experiences and attitudes of unmarried people who aren’t in any relationship or on the dating scene or things like that. It was very exciting to get to pursue something that has not seen a lot of research before.
I appreciate it. It’s been incredibly helpful for me. Let’s talk about that methodology. This is a large survey. How do you do it? Who gets surveyed? Why wasn’t I asked about my wants and desires?
We’re lucky to have the American Trends Panel, which is exclusive to Pew Research Center. It’s a nationally representative online panel of survey respondents. We have over 15,000 people on the panel. You haven’t been asked yet but maybe in the future, you will. That gives us a ton of flexibility. It’s so large that we can get even small groups like LGBT Americans and things like that. That’s how we did this particular survey, which was in 2019.
There are some questions that are repeated every X years so you get some longitudinal analysis.
We have some of that. The panel itself has only been around for a few years. Before that, we were asking a lot of questions on the telephone like using phone surveys. That has introduced some complications because people tend to answer questions a little bit differently on the telephone versus an online survey. We’re starting new with some of our trends. In the future, we’re building a foundation for that.
That’s excellent. Let’s put aside those married people. Let’s talk about singles. Let’s talk about my people, my readers. What are some of the standout findings that you and your team have recognized?
We found that 31% of American adults are single. We’re defining that as not married, not living with a partner, and not in a committed romantic relationship. The demographics of these people, black adults are a lot more likely than white or Hispanic adults to be single. It’s the same pattern with looking at marriage rates as well. As you might expect, younger people are a lot more likely to be single than older people. It is a U-shaped curve there. The youngest people are likely to be single and then you see an increase in people being single as they get older. It’s an interesting age difference if you will get it by gender. Among men, half of the adults younger than 30 are single. That steadily decreases as they get older. Among women, half of those 65 and older are single.
There’s a mismatch. I’m going to return to the question of gender a little bit later because it’s very difficult to talk about the demographic trends and ignore gender because there’s a mismatch there. That’s very interesting. One of the other things is that the median age of first marriage is going up. In 2019, the average age for a man is 30. For a woman, it’s 28. That’s a new high.
It presents almost eight years since the 1960s and pretty steadily among both men and women.
It’s really striking. One of the fascinating things is it was at its lowest in the 1950s. Before the 1950s, it was higher. There’s almost a U that’s happening from the early 1900s to 2019, which we can point to the war there that had a little bit of an effect, among other things like economic growth and so on. That number is creeping up though. One of the questions I have about it is, to what degree is that number creeping up because of people delaying marriage? They’re waiting longer than they would normally versus the group of people who are never marrying. Both have an effect on that mean.
Certainly, both of them are contributing. The median age at first marriage has risen but then over the same time period, the share who had never been married has also been rising steadily. That indicates that both of those things are contributing to the rise of singles. In a 2017 survey, we asked people who had never been married if they wanted to get married. A majority said that they did, 58%. About 25% said that they were not sure if they wanted to or not. About 14% said that they don’t want to get married. To some extent, people haven’t necessarily made up their minds if they are going to get married. Certainly, there is a desire to get married. It’s not necessarily that people have completely dropped off wanting to get married.
That’s right. I think it’s healthy to be like, “I don’t know,” because this depends a little bit on who’s that other person, what is the state of the world and so on. For people just to say, “Absolutely,” in some ways is surprising to me given that marriage is a risky proposition in some ways. Certainly, the cost of divorce alone. As we know, it’s also risky for women. There is some sense of tying yourself to a man that some very real downside is there. The last striking finding is the percentage of Americans living alone, living solo, be it a one-person household. Can you talk about that?
Some things that could be contributing to that are some options other than marriage. I’ve heard of something called living apart together where people who are in a committed relationship or even sometimes married are choosing to live apart for a variety of reasons. Since people are pushing to have children later in life, they may also be pushing to find a partner later in life. Also, divorce among older people has doubled since the 1990s. We know from the survey that older single people are less interested in dating than younger people. They may be choosing not to enter another relationship.
This number, the one I’ve seen is 28% of households in the United States are solo. That is a huge increase since the ‘50s or ‘60s. It’s a five-fold increase. This is also a worldwide trend that we’re finding. This is not limited to the United States. Northern European countries like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany have rates of the 36% and above or something like that. It’s striking that’s there. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the influences. What is it that’s happening that’s giving rise to the number of singles and to solo living? You’ve already mentioned a few of them. You also look at social pressure in some of these surveys. What’s going on with that?
We asked single people if they feel much pressure to find a partner from family, friends and society in general. Most people said that they didn’t feel a lot of pressure. This was especially true for older singles. The majority of them felt no pressure at all.
No one’s pressuring me anymore. What do you mean by pressure? Is this from friends, family, society?
We asked those separately. For the most part, people weren’t feeling much pressure from any of them.
Is there a gender difference in pressure?
Not much. They’re roughly similar.
I found that a little bit surprising because my sense is that women may internalize some pressure even if it’s not overt. At the very least, they recognize that this tension exists in their life in part between wanting or feeling. This is a step in life versus the ability to either get it, find it or feeling the conflict with other things.
The one thing that we did see a difference in was that men were a little more likely to feel pressure from family members. I found that interesting.
I do too. Some of that might have to do with this age difference that happens where there are more young men who are single. As you get older, you get less pressure. If there are more single women as you get older, then it just could be a confound that’s there, I suspect.
That makes a lot of sense.
I took some stats classes too at some point. We need to run some partial correlations. This idea that you’re getting less pressure is real. We’re seeing this in the media. This has come up several times on the show. There is now a more balanced view of the options that exist in the world. There was Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Friends. They were showing single people living vibrant and fun lives. Friends were focused on that ultimate goal. Sex and the City was a conflicted view of it all. Seinfeld was without interest in it.
These people weren’t on a mission to couple up. Although they were actively dating which is always a good form of comedy. There’s also a flip side to that which is in contrast to Leave It To Beaver. You have Married… with Children and Desperate Housewives, which takes a look into marriage that is not wholly positive. It’s exposing some of the challenges that exist, whether it be for comedic purposes with Married… with Children. I don’t watch Desperate Housewives so I don’t know how comedic that show was intentionally or not.
I have not seen a single episode.
That’s fair. My point is the rise of this diversity of television has exposed alternative views that can be liberating and can remove some of that pressure that’s there. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other influences. I have a whole list of them. This has come up in a previous podcast called Rise of the Solo but it’s worth talking about these. From your view as a researcher besides this idea of less pressure, what else do you think is influencing the rise of the solo?
All the ones we’ve talked about have an influence. We’ve also asked people about this in some of our surveys. In our 2019 survey, we asked couples who are cohabitating why they weren’t engaged or married. The top reason that they said was that they weren’t ready financially yet. In a different survey in 2019, we asked single people who aren’t looking for a relationship or dates at all, why they aren’t looking? The top reasons that they gave are they have more important priorities and they’re just happy being single.
That’s super important. I do a lot of citing your research. One of the things that I talked about is adult singles, 50% are not interested in a relationship or dating at the moment. That’s an incredible number because it destroys the myth of the desperate lonely single person who wants to be coupled up, but for some reason, can’t pull it off. They’re waiting, hoping, desperate, sad and apologetic. That’s not the case at all. What I say to people all the time is, “It’s completely normal.” It’s as normal as wanting a relationship to not want a relationship. That’s a liberating statistic that’s there. Even more liberating is what you said. Can you repeat the main reasons why people aren’t looking for casual dating or relationship?
The top two reasons were that they have more important priorities and that they’re happy being single.
God bless them. That’s great. That’s the foundation of this show which is there are other things you can do with your time, energy and resources. Also, the ideas that you are not incomplete. This is not a liminal space to be and you’re not sitting around waiting. There’s certainly nothing wrong with you for not wanting those things. In the same way, there’s nothing wrong with you for wanting those things. Either of those is a good path, I just want to make them equal paths for people to be on. If you’ve got other cool things to do or if you’re just happy being single, you don’t have that same motivation. Because let’s be honest, it takes work. Dating and relationships take work and they are not always easy to pull off. This is not exactly a new statistic. This is not a pandemic-related thing. You have data a few years ago that suggests a similar pattern.
We don’t have much data during the pandemic so we can’t say how things have changed. That was the first time we had asked that question in 2019 so we don’t have much going back. That was before the pandemic. Another thing that people cited, as you started to say yourself, some people may find the dating landscape these days intimidating. Almost half of Americans say that dating has gotten harder in the last ten years. That’s not even thinking about the pandemic, this is before that. It could be that that’s a barrier and why people are single.
I can save you a whole lot of research because I know exactly what’s going on. On one hand, it’s easier than ever because of the apps and you have access to people you would never get a chance to meet otherwise. Especially if you have some niche preferences, it’s easier now to ever satisfy those things. Say you’re into kinky stuff and now there are apps for that. If you’re Jewish, and you want to find a Jewish person, there’s an app for that. If they are farmers only, there’s an app for that.
People who have small dating pools like LGBT people, for example. They’re far more likely to be using online dating sites than any other group.
As they should and it’s great in that way. The problem, and again this is my non-scientific but incredibly confident experience, is that there’s a lot of bad behavior because there’s a lot of bad behavior within any digital connections. It’s such weak ties, it’s easy to flake, and there’s this seemingly unlimited supply and so on. There are also some other reasons. You folks have done some stuff, especially with regard to people’s bad experiences with online dating.
We have. As you might expect, women are a lot more likely to experience harassing behavior. That applies to offline dating as well. We asked this in a more general way too. Women say that they’ve experienced unwanted touching, coercion to have sex, and things like that. You’re always going to see the gender gaps there. As far as online dating, especially young women and people who are gay or lesbian experience a lot more harassment from people sending them sexually explicit messages repeatedly and things like that.
I see it all the time in profiles saying, “I’m not sending you nudes. No dick pics.” A lot of defensive behavior. Also, one of the things that I have seen is a rise in trans folks on the apps. A few years ago, it was quite rare. Now, these people are opening themselves up which is great but then, it also opens you up to the person who doesn’t welcome a trans person in their feed. I have many female friends and women I’ve dated who tell me stories of them politely declining an invitation or interest, and then almost always, a man explodes on the other side and is incredibly rude. It’s a disgusting kind of thing. That’s super unfortunate because it hurts everyone. It makes it difficult for people to approach dating which should be fun, exciting, filled with wonder and possibility with rather apprehension, defensiveness, and so on that’s there. It’s a double-edged sword for many people because it gives access yet it also gives rise to bad behavior.
That is what we found in the survey. Something I thought was interesting is we asked this among all adults, not just those who are single, has dating gotten harder? Is it easier? Is it about the same as it was ten years ago? Almost half said it was harder. We asked those people why has dating gotten so much harder in the last ten years. As you might expect, women were a lot more likely to say that more physical and also emotional risk was the reason. A lot of people said that technology or just in general, online dating makes it harder to meet people in real life and things like that. You can’t screen people as well. We also have people who said that dating has gotten easier in the last ten years. Why it’s gotten easier? A lot of those people also said technology. The American public has seen it as a double-edged sword as well.
One of the very real things pre-pandemic was because of the apps, it has become harder to approach people in real life. What’s happened is the dynamic has flipped. If you weren’t interested in meeting someone, you had to suffer through some awkward flirtation sometimes. Now, it’s the opposite, which if you want to meet someone in real life, it’s difficult to do because people want to be respectful. They don’t know who’s who and who wants what in those situations. It reveals the complexities of this.
Some of it has to do a little bit with the apps are imperfect. They’re not the ideal method by which to meet people and there’s not a level of accountability that exists in the real world. If you set me up with a friend, and then I was a jackass, you’d call me and be like, “Pete, why are you such a jackass?” There’s not that level of accountability that exists. I wouldn’t be a jackass. Don’t worry. I rarely let someone set me up either anymore. That’s the case. Let’s go through some more of these, why the rise of singles? Some of it is less pressure, recognition, willingness and ability to say, “I’m happy.” That goes along with that thing. What are some of the other things that you’ve noticed in your work or beyond that’s giving rise to this bigger group of solos?
One possible explanation could be the rise of economic opportunities for women. We’ve seen a big rise in the number of women who are breadwinners for her family. It could be educational as well. Education is interesting because we see that college-educated women are more likely to be married, but then they also delay marriage more than women with less education.
Let’s get into that a little bit because this is very real and it’s a good development. One of the things that you see worldwide is that countries that have a better social safety net and more egalitarian also have more single people. I don’t think it’s because they’re single, I think it allows people to be single. If you can get universal healthcare, now you don’t have to necessarily couple up because you don’t have insurance. Let’s be honest, as a woman, there was a time that if you didn’t want to live with your family, you need to get married because you couldn’t get a job that paid well enough to live on your own.
Anything that gives women access to education and greater economic resources frees them up to enter into something voluntarily, rather than as a requirement that’s there. The act of also pursuing education and economic opportunities, let’s be honest, perhaps crowds out dating and so on. I do want to talk to you about this other issue, which I don’t think has been talked about as much, at least in my readings which is inescapable. Gender is inescapable.
What’s happened is as women have progressed and have done better and better. Men have stayed stagnant or in many cases have fallen. For example, women outnumber men in undergraduate programs and graduate programs. Single women are more likely to own homes. There’s a whole ton of stuff about incarcerations, homicide, homelessness, addiction and so on in which men dominate all of those categories. It’s not the whole story but it still somewhat contributing. It’s just harder for some people to match up.
That could be something. I’m curious to see how the pandemic will affect all of this. We are seeing that the pandemic is having a much harder financial impact and work impact on women than on men. It could be that some of the gains that we’re seeing among women could be reduced because of the pandemic. I’m curious to see how this will play out and affect the marriage market.
There’s a real pain point within families. Suddenly, now, everybody’s in the house. Traditionally, women have worked a second shift even within progressive couples. How much is this burden for the household that has fallen even more on women’s shoulders and create those issues? I don’t know about people living on their own as much that’s there. I do think that it’s all real and I always come back to this idea of how economics, capitalism and consumerism benefit singles. It’s easier than ever to live on your own.
We now have urbanization. You have apartment buildings. They’re essentially perfect for single people, in the sense. Even things like safety, having that living situation benefits women. Any time-saving, energy-saving device, a washer and dryer, food delivery services, any of those things have a disproportionately beneficial effect for a single person. It frees up time and energy to dedicate to your career and socializing. You don’t need someone else to help maintain and develop a household. Does any of that stuff come up in your work?
We haven’t looked into that much. One interesting trend that we’ve noticed is there’s a rise in older people living alone. Some of that is because divorce has risen a lot. We call it gray divorce among those who are 50 and older. We haven’t done research on this but I could see a lot of those time-saving devices being especially helpful for older singles who are living alone.
Yes, indeed. If you think about a mobile phone. One of the things that are striking is that single people are more connected. They have more friends. They’re more connected to their community. When you live alone, you can just go out alone. You can communicate very easily. It has a surrogate effect where before if you didn’t have a phone, you are alone when you’re alone. Now, you may be alone but you’re not really in a way. Also, we can’t ignore the role that birth control and fertility treatments have had for women.
Now, you don’t have to get married because you accidentally got pregnant or you don’t have to get married because you want to have a child. You can now do that on your own if you want. I have a forthcoming episode about solo parenting and especially women who choose to do it without a husband, without a partner that’s there. There’s a whole bunch of others. We don’t have to get into all of them, but easier to divorce, immigration and shifts in religiosity. Fewer and fewer people are religious and hence, less pressure.
I don’t know how much that affects it but things like immigration gave rise to single people because single people are more likely to immigrate. That’s all of that. It’s interesting because it’s this mix of innovation, changing perspectives, cultural shifts and demographic shifts. These people are living longer and because men die younger, you have a bunch of older women who meet that criteria. Before we move on, are there any other things that stand out to you about the rise of solos, psychographics, demographics or economic?
One thing I want to touch on that’s related to something you’ve said is in a survey, we found that relatively small shares of US adults say that being married is essential to living a fulfilling life. A lot of them say it’s important but not essential. A higher share says that being in a committed relationship is important or essential. Only 16% say that being married is essential for a man to live a fulfilling life and 17% say the same about a woman. I thought that was interesting.
Let’s be honest here. The contrast is to become a man, getting married and having kids were essential to that. There are remnants of this belief where men like me might be referred to as Peter Pan like, “He’s not willing to grow up.” The idea that getting married and having children grows you up. It makes you into an adult. It’s a rite of passage that exists. Anything that takes away that pressure is going to be useful. Because first of all, what a bunch of bullshit that that’s what turns you into an adult. To me, there’s a whole wide array of other things that you can do that are meaningful, important and show responsibility that has that same effect.
The other one is and I lament this, I’m encouraged by the findings. The fact that people get less pressure is a good thing. How many people enter into relationships, cohabiting, marriage or whatever it might be, even dating casual because they feel like they should be rather than it’s right for them? Maybe they compromise things that aren’t right for them. Whether it be a lifestyle, where they live, how they live, and how they spend their time, that is unfortunate. It holds people back from whether it be entrepreneurial adventures, artistic adventures or travel adventures where people are not thriving in any way. I’m right, right?
I can only tell you what the data says.
You’re operating as a Pew Research Center employee so I can appreciate that. I say it and I believe that’s true. It’s easy to see. It’s why I’m not anti-marriage because marriage does that. That allows artists to become artists and be artists, entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurs, people who want to travel to travel, or people who don’t want to travel to not travel, to be a good thing. It’s the idea that some people don’t get to be their true selves or authentic selves because they’re trying to satisfy others, because it’s still the norm. One of the striking things is it’s projected that 1 out of 4 Millennials will never marry. That’s pretty cool. That’s down from 10% of people who would never marry. It’s still 75% are expected to marry. It’s still an overwhelming majority.
The share of people who are not married has plateaued in years. It’s been hovering right around 50% and that hasn’t changed much.
That’s a good number, the way I see it. I was trying to think about this, what is there that happens? I don’t know what the marriage rate is now. Let’s say it’s over 80%. What else is there that 80% of everybody does?
Not much. That’s a hard number to attain in a survey.
What are the rates of high school graduation?
I don’t know that off the top of my head.
I think it’s around the same. I could be wrong. Maybe I’m overly pessimistic. My point is it’s difficult to find anything that everybody does. It’s not the case with religious activities. It’s certainly almost anything lifestyle-related. It’s not that high. Career-related stuff, no. Education-related stuff, no. It’s very hard to find anything that many people do. As a result, if many people do it, is it because it’s right, or is it because it’s so much the norm that’s there? Any other striking and interesting findings that you folks have? I have one. I just want to make sure we talked about it. We already talked about half of the singles are not looking to date or be in a relationship but within the half that is looking, I found this interesting. Do you have those data in front of you?
Among the people who are looking for a relationship or dates, we asked, “Are you looking for a committed relationship only? Casual dates only? Are you open to either?” A lot of people said that they were open to either, 53% overall. Only 28% were exclusively looking for a committed relationship.
That goes against what people think is happening. My sense is on the apps. There is pressure to say you’re looking for a relationship. People are worried about being judged negatively. On Bumble, there is “You’re Looking For Marriage.” It’s very rare, at least among women. “Relationship” is overwhelming, “Something Casual” and “Don’t Know.” To me, that in-between is a “Don’t Know.” I think “Don’t Know” is a bad term. It doesn’t feel right or seems right. It doesn’t capture the ambivalence as much as like uncertainty. “Something Casual” is not exactly the right phrase. People often default into a relationship in part because casual can fit also in that sense. I’m in a world where I want to normalize all of this. It’s normal to not want to date. If you do want to date, it’s normal to not be looking for a relationship. That’s what I took away from your survey.
I wish we could have dug into this a little bit more to figure out exactly what they meant when they said that they were open to either. It could be that they might be looking for a relationship but they’re open to casual dating in the meantime. We don’t necessarily know what their long-term goals are. Another interesting tidbit that I found, there was a small share of people who were casually dating someone. We asked them this question too. Are they looking for relationship dates open to either? For the most part, these people are keeping their options open. They’re looking for something as well or to replace it. Only 5% of the casual daters said they’re not looking for anything.
All of this is good. When there’s only one model of dating and relationships, it can’t work. Given the people have varied preferences. You were saying, especially talking about LGBTQ communities, these are folks who naturally have unconventional relationships from a cultural perspective. There’s greater acceptance of all of this stuff. We know that anything heteronormative immediately marginalizes these folks. Anything that we can do that makes unconventional relationships considered to be more conventional and more acceptable now is going to allow people to live a better life in that sense. I welcome all of this.
You even mentioned living apart together is happening more and more these days. I love this idea. I love the fact that two people can fall in love, have a relationship, can even get married and get the benefits of marriage but they don’t have to move into the same city. They don’t have to move into the same house. They don’t have to move into the same bedroom if that doesn’t work for them, whether it be because of their careers or because of their temperature preferences. Anna, this has been great. Are there any other things that a Solo reader should know that’s going to let them feel more comfortable and more proud that their decisions are more reasonable, dare I say more remarkable?
We defined that about 1/3 of singles who have never been married have also never been in a committed romantic relationship at all. Those people were considerably younger than average. Even 21% of never-married single people, 40 and older have never been in a relationship. They’re less likely to be looking for a relationship or date. Maybe they’re part of the group that is happy being single. I found that interesting.
I hate to do this. We’re going to end on a slightly darker note. There is a rise in single living that I find concerning. I’ve already alluded to some of it before. These are women in their 30s and 40s who want it but can’t find it. They tend to be more educated. They have a hard time finding a partner who they don’t feel is a major compromise that’s there. The other one is these young men who like women, want to have sex, and can’t find a partner. These incels or involuntary celibates. I’m deeply concerned about that group, in part, because it can give rise to misogyny in a way that is disturbing and upsetting.
It can also lead them to withdraw from society, into their video games and their pornography, and turn into middle-aged men who are angry and bitter. There’s a term for them, MGTOW, Men Going Their Own Way. I don’t think that’s good for women and society. I certainly know that when men are hurt, they tend to hurt others as we’ve alluded to before. These guys would explode when they receive a reasonable, thoughtful and compassionate rejection because it’s a culmination of rejection after rejection. At some point, they don’t have to develop the skills necessary to be appealing. I know this is probably outside of the work that you folks have done.
We have touched on this a little bit in the survey. When we asked people who are single and not looking to date or for a relationship, why they’re not looking to date. We found that men are about twice as likely as women to say that feeling like no one would be interested in dating them is a major reason why they’re not looking to date. That was 26% of men who are not on the dating market. We also asked people who are in the dating market but have found it difficult to find people to date, why they think that is. Men were a lot more likely than women to say it was hard for them to approach people.
Some of that too is men are unpopular right now. The kind ones or the decent ones are scared because they don’t want to do the wrong thing. The ones who aren’t scared are often causing problems because they’re doing it poorly. I have a group of guys and we joke that we need to create a man-school to help. There are two elements to this show. One is the celebration of single living. The other one is, how do you live a remarkable life? No one ever teaches you how to do this. You’re certainly not getting that in school. You may not be getting that from parents. Certainly, you’re not getting it from parents about how to be good at being single. I do lament both of these dynamics of someone who wants something but can’t seem to find it because there are not good available options. People who can’t do it, not because there aren’t available options but because those options aren’t interesting.
The American public also shares your view on that. Sixty-five percent said that the increased focus on sexual harassment and assault over the last few years has made it harder for men to know how to interact with someone they’re on a date with. Only 9% said it’s made it easier for men.
That’s interesting. I lament that because I want people to live their best lives. I want to try to help problem-solve some of this stuff. I feel it’s easier to help people learn how to be more appealing than to help them find better options. I could be wrong about that. That’s there. I do hate to end this on that negative note but I do think that it suggests a need for more resources for single people like this show, other books that we’re starting to see, the rise of single advocates and single educators, and so on. I want to thank you for your work because overwhelmingly, the research and the survey work that’s been done has been focused on marriage and families. For you and your team to spearhead this work is incredibly important because it is normalizing what seemed like abnormal preferences and living situations. Thank you.
You’re great. I do appreciate this. With that, I’ll bring this to a close and I simply will say cheers.
- Rise of the Solo past episode
About Anna Brown
Anna Brown is a Research Associate at Pew Research Center, where she is involved in all stages of the survey research process, from designing questionnaires to analyzing polling data to writing reports.
Her focus is on social and demographic trends and some of her recent research focuses on attitudes, dating and relationships, and how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Americans’ financial outlooks.
Anna received a bachelor’s degree in Politics from Oberlin College and a master’s degree in Survey Methodology from the University of Maryland.
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