What Every New Census Report Shows: More Americans Are Single. But Why?

10/01/2010 04:17 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A few days ago, a new Census Bureau report was released, and 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 here.)

So how do the stories in the media (such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, 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 (in Table S1101) that 5.2% of the 113.6 million households are comprised of opposite-sex unmarried couples, and 0.5% 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 cohabitors. A USA Today 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% 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?"