There are more single people living alone now than ever before. The UK Office of National Statistics indicates that women living alone and who have never been married have risen by half a million between the ages of 40-70 from 2002 to 2018. The amount of single people in their 40s has doubled in the past 50 years. What are the reasons behind this trend? Is it better for your health and financial security to be in a relationship? Why is choosing to remain single and not pursue a long-term relationship and start a family still viewed as unusual?
The concept of the traditional nuclear family unit is no longer the norm. There is a wide range of non-traditional families such as civil partnerships, same-sex couples, single mothers, or single fathers raising children. It is no longer assumed that when we grow up we get a job, get married, and settle down. There are more educational and career opportunities available to improve our economic status and financial stability so there is no longer a reliance on a partner to share the bills.
Another important feature of the move away from traditional family setups is the change in the position and economic independence of women. Historically, women were dependent on men for resources. They could not own property or hold an occupation so marriage was a necessity for survival. However, now women have more equal rights to men and can have their own careers, salary, property, and pension. They are no longer dependent on a partner. Even with the persisting gender wage gap, single women reported better health and less stress. Policies exist now to protect women from harassment and discrimination. The consequence of these changes is women now have a choice to pursue their careers and delay settling down if that is what they want to do. The median age for marriage now is 31 for men and 33 for women. These statistics are similar to other countries and ethnic groups. Black people are more likely to be single (59% of which 62% are women), Asian 29%, White 33% and Hispanic 38%. In Japan, 20% of people remain unmarried at 50 in 2015 which is an increase of fourfold since 1970. In South Korea, the number of single women aged 30-34 has increased by 28% since 2010; in China, 30% of women are single, compared to only 5% 40 years ago.
For men, it seems being single may not be as positive. Over a third of single men live with a parent and single men are statistically more likely to have less education and work in lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs. It has been reported that there are now more men looking for and struggling to find partners – even more so if they are in lower-skilled jobs and with lesser earnings. People who have financial stability are more likely to attract a partner.
Although being single is not unusual today, there is still a pervasive stigma that lingers. The term ‘spinster’ has been removed from official usage in 2005 thanks to the Civil Partnership Act but some single women find themselves labelled as such.
The term ‘singlism’ has been coined to describe the negative stereotyping and discrimination that single people face. So-called ‘matrimania’ is still ongoing in the media, TV, and film industry and often feature the coupling ideal while encouraging the idea that happiness is only found when one finds their ‘soulmate’. The choice to remain single and not seek out a partner as well as the choice to not have children is still in conflict with the sociocultural norm. Single people often find themselves questioned on their choices and feel obliged to explain and justify why they are not married or in a relationship. Relationship status inevitably comes up in conversation when meeting new people and is viewed as essential to their identity so they can then be categorised and pigeon-holed.
Even (some) researchers are contributing to the negative view of single life. A study from the Pew Research Centre in the US promotes the economic advantage of being married and highlights the idea that single adults do not live as long and are more likely to indulge in risky behaviours such as binge drinking. Single people are also paid less and have fewer resources for help. A report by Forbes suggests that single people put off their retirement planning while married people, on the other hand, start saving earlier. The cost per person of living is higher for those living alone who pay a higher percentage of their income on necessities. In the US, single people pay more tax. In the UK, there is no difference in tax whether one is married or not; people are taxed as individuals.
What are the other downsides to being single? In a survey by Relate in 2017, the most common problem reported was loneliness, with 45% (more men than women) admitting to this. The other commonly reported downsides were a lack of intimacy and not having someone you can emotionally relate to. Many reported feeling under pressure to find a relationship, particularly younger respondents.
Despite these downsides, single people who choose to be single are able to describe the many positives of their lifestyle. Independence, time to focus on themselves and their hobbies being the main ones. One in five single people says they have larger priorities in life than finding a relationship, such as their career, finances, property, and travel. Young people now appreciate that being single allows them to focus on dedicating their time to studying, getting a degree, and qualification. Single people enjoy the freedom of living alone and focusing on personal growth. They don’t feel the need to rely on someone else to feel good about themselves. There are, of course, people in relationships who are unhappy; being alone is more favourable than being in a bad relationship that could destroy your happiness and self-confidence.
Ultimately, it’s the individual’s choice and it should not be taken for granted, for women in particular, that we have the freedom to create the life we want. This needs no justification from anyone else and our relationship choices are our own and should not be judged or commented on by others. Every single one of us is different – that’s what makes us special.