Yes, There Is a Singles Demographic

Yes, There Is a Singles Demographic


Bella DePauloDeath to Singular magazine! That’s not my opinion; it came from columnist Elisabeth Eaves, who asked, “Does the world really need a magazine for single people?”

As a lifelong single person, and an author and social scientist with expertise in singlehood, I was hoping for a different prediction. Still, I was intrigued by the arguments marshaled by Eaves to back her bet on Singular’s premature demise. Here they are:

–Single people are just too broad a category. They are like people with brown hair. How do you market to people with brown hair?

–Unmarried Americans are a diverse group who share no interests, except, of course, mate hunting.

–Single people do not define themselves as single.

–Marital status doesn’t stand still. Who’s going to identify with that?

–Singlehood is “not a state people aspire to–not, at least, in the same way they desire to be stylish or wealthy.” What’s more, “there’s no reason to aspire to singlehood, because it’s easy to get there.”

The 93 million Americans who are divorced, widowed or have always been single are an extraordinarily diverse group. Eaves is right about that. We are women and men of all ages, social and economic categories, races, religions, sexual orientations, living arrangements and, yes, hair colors. Officially, we have but one defining characteristic: We are not legally married.

Yet, in staking her claims that singles share only an interest in mate seeking and that singlehood is not something people aspire to, Eaves is already demonstrating that we singles actually do have some experiences in common. That is that we know what other people think of us: that no one would want to be what we are (single), and that what we long for, more than anything else, is to become un-single.

Conventional — not current!

Eaves’ view is an accurate description of the conventional wisdom about singlehood. My colleagues and I have surveyed thousands of people; many of them see singles in much the same way she does. But they—and she—are wrong.

In a Pew survey, unmarried Americans were asked whether they were in a committed relationship and whether they were looking for a partner. Twenty-six percent said they already had a committed relationship. The biggest group, 55%, said they were not in such a relationship and that they were not looking for a partner. The category Eaves assumed to be the most commonplace–not in a relationship but looking for one—amounted to a skimpy 16%. (The other 3% did not answer.)

While the conventional wisdom insists that singles are yearning to escape their supposedly sorry state, we real single people are living our lives fully. We are buying homes and furnishing them (well, as much as anyone can these days), traveling, supporting ourselves and sometimes some children, tending to our friendships and kinships, and pursuing our passions. We’re not putting our lives on hold, marking time until we find The One.

And why should we? Although it is true, as Eaves states, that marital status is something that can change, singlehood is not the transitional period it once was. In fact, Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. That means that it is marriage that is transitional—separating one state of singlehood from the next—and only for those who do marry.

We are living in interesting times, historically and sociologically. What it means to live single has changed dramatically over the last several decades, but our perceptions have not caught up.

Like the Women’s Movement

The place of singles in today’s society is similar to the place of women before the women’s movement of the 1970s. Back then, most people either did not recognize, or did not question, the degree to which the male point of view was the standard in the workplace, the media, in popular culture and even in science. Studies of heart disease based solely on men, the pervasive use of male pronouns to refer to all people, the separate and unequal want ads for men and women, and all of the other now-familiar examples—well, at the time, that’s just the way it was. The initial challenges to those practices rocked the nation. Some felt threatened by the challenges, others liberated and enlightened.

Now, it is singlism that seeps into the nooks and crevices and crannies of the contemporary landscape, unnoticed and unchallenged. Singlism (my term for the stereotyping and stigmatizing of people who are single) and matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of weddings and couples) make up our cultural wallpaper. That’s just the way it is.

Millions of single people dine with friends, colleagues or family and pay their own way; still, ads routinely list prices “per couple.” Greeting cards convey “our” condolences or birthday wishes. In many workplaces, married workers can add their spouse to their health care plan at a reduced rate; singles cannot add the most important person in their lives to their plans. Most soldiers are single, but in televised clips of returning warriors, it seems that most are rushing toward the open arms of a spouse. Promotional materials from retirement services are adorned with pictures of older couples walking hand in hand, when most women that age are single.

What’s more, hardly anyone thinks there is anything wrong with any of this. We’re all locked in the conventional marriage and nuclear family box. We’ve been there so long, with so few missives from beyond, that we don’t even realize that we’re trapped. We need a magazine for singles because it is time for some unconventional wisdom.

So what might such a magazine (or blog or Web site or any other media) look like?
Yes, There Is a Singles Demographic
For happy singles, by happy singles

I would like to see a magazine that is for single people, for living single and not for becoming unsingle. Want to tell me about those Best Cities for Singles, as does every year? I’d love that. But I’m not so interested in some of the criteria, such as the number of online dating profiles or the number of bars and nightclubs per capita. You wouldn’t list the number of divorce attorneys per capita as a criterion for the “Best Cities for Couples.”

Tell me about the cities that are the most friend-friendly. I value my friendships, and I want to feel just as welcome in restaurants and public events and informal gatherings when I walk in with a friend or two than when I arrive hand in hand with a mate or a date.

Don’t know how to measure friend-friendliness? Isn’t that interesting? More people have friends than have romantic partners, and single people often have friendships that have outlasted many marriages. Yet we don’t know how to recognize places that support and value friendships. Let’s discuss that.

I want to know about travel packages that are not tarred with single supplements. I’d like to know about car insurance and health insurance companies that do not charge me more than a same-aged married person. Tell me about the health clubs that are not cheaper by the couple, and the restaurant deals that are just as valuable to me when I’m dining solo as when I show up with friends or family.

I’d love to hear from and about authors who write compellingly–not condescendingly or pityingly–about singles, whether in novels or memoirs or other nonfiction.

I’d like to see a book review feature, where I can learn about works of fiction in which the characters are as unblinkered by the mythologies of marriage as so many of us happily single people are. All too often, I’ve started reading a novel that seemed poised to take me along on a soulful psychological journey. Ultimately, though, it takes a turn toward the hackneyed. When the protagonists are up against all that challenges them in their lives, they decide that conventional romantic love is the answer. I don’t live in that box. Let me out.

I want to read the latest from the front lines of psychology, sociology and medicine. But I want fair renderings. I’ve been checking out matrimaniacal headlines for years. Almost without fail, all of those “get married, and you’ll get happy and healthy and live longer” claims are misrepresented, exaggerated or just plain wrong.

I’d like to hear from singles who have dealt with bosses or co-workers who expect them to cover for everyone else, on the assumption that if you are single, you don’t have anyone and you don’t have a life. I also appreciate the everyday tales of funny looks, awkward questions and strange situations.

Many think and live like us

My own preferences are not all that quirky. I write the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today, and when I blog about solitude or friendship, or what’s wrong with the latest claims about getting married, or why no single person should ever have to answer the question “So why have you never been married,” or why we need a National Singles Week, or about dining solo, or about singlism and matrimania in everyday life, thousands of people vote their interest with their clicks.

The topics that might appeal to singles like me are many and varied. What a joy it would be to read about them in a publication that is gloriously free of singlism and matrimania, and that recognizes that we are not defined by a desire to be coupled.

But do we define ourselves as single? Eaves thinks not. Actually, some singles do and some don’t. Perhaps more important, other people regard our singlehood as definitional. They see it as a sign of what’s inside us (the sadness, the loneliness, the tragic flaw that has left us stuck in our single state–myths, all). Sometimes they use it as grounds for exclusion, as when social events are planned for couples only.
Yes, There Is a Singles Demographic
The state of singlehood

Eaves also said it is easy to get to the state of singlehood. That one is true. I can (and I do) choose to be single. Anyone can. But I cannot be single in the same way that you can be married. My status as a single person is suspect in a way that a married person’s never is. I get asked why I’m single; you don’t get asked why you’re married. I cannot be single with the same presumption of a life well lived. I cannot be single with the same material benefits and protections as you can. In the federal statutes alone (never mind state or local), there are 1,136 provisions and privileges accorded only to people who are legally married.

It is not at all like brown hair.

I don’t know if the new magazine for singles will be successful. At a time when so many different kinds of magazines are folding, I wouldn’t be too quick to attribute any downfall to its dedication to people who are single. Whatever its eventual fate, though, I think it has made a contribution. A buzz is in the air; we’re talking about singles and their lives. Even the dismissive reactions, such as Eaves’, have their place; they invite counterarguments, and let some light shine in. Now that Singular has made its debut, it’s a little less unusual to think of singles as a group than it was before. Maybe, because of that, the next publication for singles will be even more likely to succeed.

Copyright © Bella DePaulo 2009 / Singular Communications, LLC

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