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Singles Nation

May 22, 2021 | Trends

Drivers first spotted them during the 1970s in that ahead-of-the-curve state, California. No, not yuppies, bumper stickers and license frames proclaiming, “Happiness Is Being Single.” Whoever came up with that slogan was riding a significant incoming wave early. America, and the rest of the world, for that matter, is becoming a nation of singles.

The proportion of married couples has been shrinking for decades. In 1930, married couples accounted for 84% of total U.S. households. After World War II, that figure had dropped to 78% by 1950. Every five years, between 1950 and 1970, the number of married households declined by 2%, except for 1965, when it fell just 1%. Then came the big cliff. The burn-your-bras movement of the 1960s had a massive impact on the 1970s, causing the Singles Nation trend to accelerate, with a 5% drop between 1971 and 1975 and another 5% between 1976 and 1980:

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The 1980s saw a 5% drop. The 1990s and 2000s brought relative stability, with the trend continuing to drop “just” 3% each decade. In 2020 came a big surprise, the number of married households rose for the first time since 1947, increasing 1% that year. That was a significant reversal, considering that married couples as a proportion of American households had slipped into a minority for the first time in 2011, dipping below 50%.

Despite the upturn, nearly four in 10 Americans in 2010 said marriage was becoming obsolete, according to Pew Research. And in 2014, Pew projected that a record 25% of young people might never get married.

Many contemporary phenomena fuel the trend:

  • Female workforce – More women in the workforce means a decreased dependence on financial support. In 2020, there were 75.5 million women aged 16 and over in the labor force, representing close to half (47%) of the total civilian labor force.
  • Postponed marriages – Another key factor is couples postponing marriage. In 1970, the median age of a groom was 23 while his bride was 21, according to Census Bureau data. By 2020, the median age at first marriage had climbed to nearly 31 years for men and 28 years for women. In every state and Washington, D.C., the share of people between the ages of 20 and 34 who have never married has risen sharply since 2000. In cities where millennials cluster for jobs, the situation can be extreme: 81% of young people are still single in Washington, D.C., up from 73% in 2000.
  • Living with parents – More people are also living with their parents, in part because they carry student loan debt. The Census Bureau reports that one-third of young adults lived in their parents’ homes in 2015. The “Failure to Launch” group was larger than those living with a spouse or romantic partner, living alone or with roommates, or living as single parents.
  • Global trend – The trend is global. In Australia, one in four households is headed by a single person. And the trend Down Under has increased sharply since the 1970s, paralleling the U.S. experience. In such large cities as Paris, 50% of dwellings are inhabited by just one person. In Japan, 54% of Japanese women in their late 20s are single, up from 31% in 1985. And about half of single women ages 35 to 54 have no intention to marry. Not that there’s anything wrong with marriage. Despite their new-age attitudes, most young people still want to marry and settle down. Four out of five high school seniors expect to be married at some point in the future, surveys conducted by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research have consistently shown since the 1980s.
  • Unwired Ubertrend – Another influence is the Unwired Ubertrend, which has fostered an untethered and unfettered generation, one that treasures the value of freedom and also suffers from a growing “ control enthusiast” syndrome.

That syndrome feeds on an overly indulgent culture that has everyone wishing for more. Hollywood’s flitting-about ways are rubbing off on Joe Six-Pack, leading many to think that “the next one” will be better. Celebrity worship magazines have many wishing for an Eva Longoria-style wedding, complete with rings donated by Piaget. But while they wait for that better one, many men and women end up living alone or, worse, with their parents.

The reality is that more millennials seem to be concluding that being single and waiting for that better next one is a preferable pastime, with far-reaching consequences. Is it time to revive that 1970s bumper sticker? 😏🪧


Ubertrend Categorization: Unwired.

Michael Tchong’s Ubertrends book
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