U.S. Census Confirms More Americans Are Single

U.S. Census Confirms More Americans Are Single

As a growing number of people opt to live a singular life, reporters and scholars clamor to find a reason why.

U.S. Census Confirms More Americans Are Single

In a new Census Bureau report we learned the same thing we have been hearing for decades: the number of single Americans just keeps growing.

There are now 106.4 million Americans, 18 and older, who are divorced or widowed or have always been single. For the fifth year in a row, there are more households that do not include a married couple than households that do. There are more one-person households than households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids.

In those annoying years between the ages of 25 and 34, when other people start assuming you should be married by now, well guess what? People who are married are outnumbered by people who have always been single. (I described more of the statistics behind these demographic trends.)

So how do the stories in the media (such as the New York Times, the , and the Associated Press) explain the increase in the number of single people and decrease in the number of married Americans?

I”ll run through some of the most frequently mentioned factors; challenge the popular explanation that singles aren’t really single, they are just cohabiting instead of marrying; pin the award for the most gratuitous singles-bashing explanation on the tail of the New York Times; and end with the one explanation that did not seem to occur to anyone.

The Economy

All of the accounts I”ve read mention the economy. Maybe adults are postponing marriage until they feel more secure financially.

Increasing Age at First Marriage

The “delay” of marriage has been going on for quite some time. The age at which Americans first marry (among those who do marry) has been rising fairly steadily since 1956. So the economy may be contributing to that trend, but the arrow was already pointing upwards when times were good.

High Divorce Rate

The divorce rate continues to be high, so that contributes to the large number of single people, too. That was noted in several reports.

Increase in Cohabiting

An explanation that seems particularly popular is that the lower rates of marriage have a lot to do with the higher rates of cohabitation. Using a beloved media knock-your-socks-off word, the Wall Street Journal declared that the number of cohabiting couples has “skyrocketed.” The New York Times quoted marriage scholar Andrew Cherlin: “It is a mistake to think of all unmarried people as single,” he said. “Lots are living with partners.”

We can do better than “lots.” The 2009 American Community Survey reports that 5.2 percent of the 113.6 million households are comprised of opposite-sex unmarried couples, and 0.5 percent include same-sex unmarried couples. That would amount to about 5.9 million opposite-sex cohabiting couples and close to .6 million same-sex cohabiting couples, for a total of about 6.5 million.

Because I’m going to declare that I’m unimpressed by these numbers, I first wanted to see if any articles claimed larger numbers of co-habitors. A story begins with this paragraph:

“Cohabitation in the USA is at an all-time high, with the number of opposite-sex couples living together rising 13 percent in a year’s time, from 6.7 million in 2009 to 7.5 million this year.”

I don’t see a report of the number of same-sex cohabiting couples in that story, so I’ll assume a very high estimate of 1 million. In total, that would be 8.5 million cohabiting couples. I just don’t think that’s a big number.

In 2009 there were 113.6 million households. More than 31 million were one-person households. Sometimes people hear this and say it is not a fair comparison, and I need to double the number for the cohabiting couples since there are two adults per household. Fine.

That brings the number up to about 17 million. That’s still way short of 31 million. Consider, too, that the 31 million figure does not include all the single people who live with other people (such as children, friends, relatives) but not with a romantic partner.

Remember, there are 106.4 million Americans who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. Subtracting some 17 million cohabiting singles still leaves a whopping 89.4 million single people who are not cohabiting. So, 89.4 million vs. 17 million. You just can’t wave away the growing number of single people by suggesting that they’re cohabiting instead of marrying.

The Most Irresponsible Explanation

Sadly, the one explanation with no data whatsoever to back it was published in the New York Times. The paper quoted Joel Greiner, who said that economic considerations were not the real issue: “It is more a fear of intimacy and fear of marriage.”

Who’s Joel Greiner? He’s “the director of counseling for the Journey, an interdenominational church in the St. Louis area.” Couples in his congregation tell him they are living together while they save money, but he’s decided they’re just scared. That’s right — he is not citing scientific research. He’s not even pointing to what the people in his congregation have told him, except to say that he doesn’t believe it. This is what the New York Times uses to perpetuate its singlism. Singles are just scared of intimacy. Some guy said so.

The Explanation No Publication Suggested

So let’s see, is there any other possible reason why more and more Americans are living single? Has it occurred to any reporters or scholars quoted in the press that it is increasingly possible to live a full, complete, and meaningful life as a single person, and so a growing number of Americans are opting to do so? No! Apparently, the thought never occurred to them.

For that, you’d have to go to, say, someone whose thoughts about single life are not prefabricated. Take David, for example, a reader who emailed me. He sent me one of the stories in the media, asking this about the proposed explanations for the low rate of marriage: “Why can’t it be because people simply prefer being single?”

It’s Not Just In America!

Attractive, assertive and financially secure, Park Min Kyoung seems like the kind of woman many men would want for a wife. But marriage isn’t a priority for the 41-year-old singular. She is single by choice and has no plans to get married any time soon.

“If I can find someone who really loves me, I can. If not, I don’t need to get married. I don’t want to get married for money or because I’m lonely,” she said.

Ms. Park is not alone, she is just one of an increasing number of South Korean women who are shunning marriage in favor of their career and the single life.

According to Statistics Korea, last year there were about 310,000 marriages in Korea, down 18,000 from 2008. More significantly, 2009 recorded Korea’s lowest marriage rate since records began in 1970, with 6.2 marriages per 1,000 people. This figure is a reflection of a continuing trend: In 2000, the marriage rate was 7.0; in 1990 it was 9.3.

Although both sexes are getting married in fewer numbers, it is women especially who have an unfavorable view of the institution. According to recent stats, just 6 out of 10 women believe marriage is a must, compared with 8 out of 10 men.

In a statement after the release of the data, Statistics Korea put the decline in marriages down to the economy, saying, “With the adverse economic conditions, more people are postponing marriage or cannot afford to marry.”

Ms. Park agrees that financial barriers are a problem, citing the high cost of rent and mortgages in particular. But, for her, the reasons for avoiding marriage go much deeper, and are cultural as much as economic. She says that many Korean men don’t see women as being equal.

Bella DePauloSingularCity member Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard, 1979) is a single lifestyle expert and the author of several books, including “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.” DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been noted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA TodayTime, Atlantic, Business Week and Newsweek. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.
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