Old ideas and unrealistic stereotypes about single people continue to create disparity in our country. The place of singles in society has changed rapidly, but the perception of who we are has not caught up and it shows in our legal system and workplace.
So much of the work/life balance conversation in the media focuses on married couples and their families. This can get old for us unmarried folks. Singles, who according to the Council on Contemporary Families now comprise 43 percent of the U.S. population, have their own workplace issues to contend with. In honor of Unmarried and Single Americans Week, I asked Bella DePaulo, psychologist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, for her take on the topic.
Q. What are the top issues plaguing singles in the workplace?
A. First, there are the deep disparities that can be measured. Benefits, for instance. In some workplaces, married workers can put their spouse on their health care plan but single workers cannot add a sibling or parent or close friend. That’s unequal compensation for the same work. Or take salary. When I was doing the research for Singled Out, I discovered a number of studies showing that single men are paid less than married men, even when the two are similar in their accomplishments. One study involved identical male twins and found that the married twin of the pairs was paid an average of 26 percent more than the single twin.
Second are the day-to-day experiences in the workplace. Sometimes co-workers and employers assume that single employees can cover the assignments and the travel and the staying late that no one else wants. They sometimes think that married workers should get first dibs on holiday and vacation times. The assumption seems to be that if you are single, you don’t have a life — or the life you have just is not as valuable as married people’s lives.
Q. What employer policies do you think are unfairly skewed toward unmarried folks?
A. Health insurance, as I’ve already mentioned, is disproportionately awarded to married workers. Same for Social Security. I can work side by side with a married co-worker, at the same job, for the same number of years, at the same level of expertise, and yet when the married person dies, that person’s Social Security benefits can be passed along to a surviving spouse. Mine go back into the system.
Family leave is another telling example. If you are married and employed at an eligible workplace, you can take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for your spouse, and your spouse can do the same to care for you. But I, as a single person, cannot take leave under that Act to care for anyone in my own generation, nor can any of my peers take leave under FMLA to care for me. Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, so this is not a trivial disadvantage.
Q. What other work-related laws do you think unfairly favor married folks?
A. Despite all the ruckus about the so-called marriage penalty, it is singles who pay more in taxes. If I, as a single person, and a married couple filing jointly report the exact same taxable income, my income tax will always be more than that of the married couple. The married couple pays less even if only one person in the couple is employed. Usually, when people talk about the marriage penalty, they are comparing the taxes paid by a couple if they stay unmarried compared to if they marry (rather than comparing one single person to one married couple).
Q. Why do you think society is still so spouse oriented, despite the fact that singles make up such a huge portion of the population?
A. Part of the answer is what social scientists call “cultural lag.” The place of singles in society has changed rapidly, but our perceptions have not caught up. So we think of singles in outmoded ways (e.g., they don’t have anyone, they don’t have a life) that are even more inappropriate and inaccurate now than they were before.
There are also religious and political factors. Marriage and family are so central in some religions, and the religious perspective has greater sway here in the United States than it does in some other Western nations. Politicians seem to treat marriage and family talk as magical. How often do you hear political leaders or candidates promise to fight for working families? Well, employers do not hire families, they hire individual workers. Why don’t our candidates instead promise to do all they can for working Americans?