An interesting little report on the demographics of the United States. With a finding that now, for the first time, half of the American adult population are single. The report that notes it thinks this is unique and of course for the US it is.
But what makes it not so unique is that it’s really just the US catching up with Europe (more especially, Northern Europe) where this has been true for some decades now.
There’s no particular public policy that has caused this and no particular public policy that is needed to combat it. It’s just the outcome of the larger economic changes that have been going on in the society at large.
Some 124.6 million Americans were single in August, 50.2 percent of those who were 16 years or older, according to data used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its monthly job-market report. That percentage had been hovering just below 50 percent since about the beginning of 2013 before edging above it in July and August. In 1976, it was 37.4 percent and has been trending upward since.
In a report to clients entitled “Selfies,” economist Edward Yardeni flagged the increase in the proportion of singles to more than 50 percent, calling it “remarkable.” The president of Yardeni Research Inc. in New York said the rise has “implications for our economy, society and politics.”
Yes, there are obviously implications of this. But as I say it’s not entirely unique. This has been true in Europe for some time now:
The traditional family based around a married couple is now the preserve of a minority with the number of single-adult households overtaking the number of couple households with dependent children, the census shows.
Figures from the official count show that married and civilly partnered couples, for the first time, now make up under half (47%) of all households – down from 50.9% in 2001. In the decade to 2011, the number of married people stayed constant at 21.2m but the number of single adults rose by more than 3m to 15.7m.
and in more general terms:
By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low.
In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.
The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.
It’s not really possible to point the finger at any one cause of all this. There’s a stew of reasons that lead to it. One, obviously, is the economic liberation of women: it really wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within my grandmothers’ lifetimes, where the only «respectable» jobs for educated women were teaching or nursing.
There might still be mild barriers to true gender employment equality (the «brogrammer» scene in tech for example, although I think that rather overplayed) but it’s certainly nothing like it was. With economic freedom obviously there’s less reason to shackle oneself to a man just so one can eat.
Similarly the pill (and perhaps penicillin) led to the sexual revolution. It’s no longer, as it actually was (obviously pre-marital sex still took place but on nothing like today’s scale) necessary to get married in order to have sex. Given the general human interest in that activity that was most certainly part and parcel of why some marriages took place.
There’s also one more: the general decline of religion. This has gone much further in Europe than it has in the US but again, in both areas religious pressure used to be the cause of at least some marriages.
We’re also all educating ourselves for many more years: all of these together have led to later and later ages at first marriage and also later dates for primagravidae (the average age at which a women has their first child…and that age of first birth is rather behind the average age of first marriage). The interesting thing about these demographics though is that the US has always been rather behind the curve on them. That age of primagravidae, for example, is breaking through 30 years in the UK (different social structures among immigrants bring that down again, but for native born that’s about right) while it’s still 26 or so for the US.
There’s nothing particularly right or wrong with any of these changes. They just are: the important point I’m trying to get across though is that while these changes might be newer, or have had less effect so far, in the US all we need to do to see what will happen is look to Europe. And despite what some people say about Europe it’s still a great place to live, to have and raise children, society still works and so on. Nothing particularly needs to be done about all of this, it’s just the way a society develops as it gets richer, as people are freed from certain social shackles, and as women gain their economic freedom. Since all of those things are in themselves desirable the society that they cause should therefore be regarded as a desirable outcome.