September 16-22 is Unmarried and Single Americans Week. Just in time for the celebration, the Census Bureau just released the latest figures showing a notable decrease in the percentage of married-with-children households. The report focused on the change since 2000, but the demographic revolution that is positioning people who are single in the center of society has been ongoing for decades. In 1970, there were more than twice as many married-with-children households than 1-person households. Now there are more of the latter. That means that if you were to knock, at random, on the door of any American household, you would be more likely to be met by a single person living solo than by mom, dad, and the kids.
The age at which Americans first marry (among those who do marry) has never been higher. The divorce rate continues to be high, remarriage happens less quickly than it once did (if it happens at all), and women continue to outlive men. All this adds up to a greater number of single people at every stage of the lifespan. It also results in one of the most telling statistics about singlehood in contemporary society: Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married.
Singlehood is no longer the place where people mark time until they find The One (or The Next One). More and more, people are living their single lives fully, rather than trudging through a phase they regard as merely transitional. A recent Pew survey asked legally single people of all ages whether they were already in a committed relationship and whether they were looking for one. The biggest group, 55%, was comprised of singles who were not in a serious relationship and were not seeking a partner.
That contemporary singles are living their lives rather than putting them on hold is also evident in other lifestyle statistics. There is a remarkable uptick in home ownership among single people (especially single women). Solo travel, and travel with friends, are fast-growing pursuits, too. Two national surveys have shown that single people add to the cohesiveness of society. Compared to married people, singles are more likely to visit, contact, advise and support their parents and siblings, and they are also more likely to encourage, help, and socialize with their neighbors and friends.
Conventional wisdom about single people is mostly wrong (as I discovered in doing the research for my book, "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After"). Take, for example, the popular features about the best this-or-that for people who are single. Forbes published one just a few weeks ago. It was called "Best Cities for Singles." But look at the criteria that get a city on the Forbes Best list. One is the number of active online dating profiles for people in that city. Another is nightlife, which includes the number of bars and nightclubs per capita. These seem like criteria you would use if you wanted to become unsingle. Other indicators, such as culture and the cost of living, seem more pertinent to the priorities of people who want to live their single lives, and not just escape them.
The "living your single life" criteria would produce a different ordering of cities. Boston, for example, ranks 11th overall out of the 40 cities that Forbes evaluated. But if online dating were removed from the equation, Boston would look a lot better; it was 35th on that measure.
So here's my question: What makes an area a good place to live for single people who want to live their single lives and not just become unsingle? What criteria should be used? How might the criteria differ (or would they) for singles of different ages, income levels, and life situations?
Below, I'll describe some of my own initial ideas on the topic. But if you would like to suggest your ideas without reading any of mine, then just skip to the comments section. Or, since comments will be closed at some point, feel free to send your thoughts to me at depaulo [at] psych.ucsb.edu with the subject line BEST FOR SINGLES. I will study your suggestions, then see if I can find any sources of funding or resources to research the best places to live as a single person.
My first thoughts start here:
Single people vary in all sorts of ways. (How could they not? There are more than 90 million of them in this country alone.) The one thing they all have in common is what defines them - they are not married. There are practical, social, and economic implications of marital status.
Being single is not the same as being alone. Singles often have whole networks of people who are important to them. But what they probably don't have is someone who is more or less obligated to be at their service when they need practical assistance - for example, to drive them to the shop to pick up their car, or to pick up some groceries when they are down with the flu. I love living near Santa Barbara because the people at my car repair place always offer me a ride, and if I don't feel like waiting for that to happen, I can just walk a few blocks to a bus with a convenient and inexpensive route. Santa Barbara also has a reasonably priced door-to-door service for groceries and other items if I ever need someone to get them for me.
Most single people do not live alone, but the many who do are paying for mortgage or rent, utilities and all the rest, on just one paycheck. Singles also miss out on the cheaper-by-the-couple specials offered by many businesses, and they are excluded from 1,138 federal provisions. Plus, single men are often paid less than married men, even when their accomplishments and seniority are the same. (I've described these economic implications of marital status in more detail in Chapter 12 of Singled Out.) So cost of living is important to many (though not all) singles.
I appreciate Santa Barbara for its bountiful farmers' markets. There, I can buy exquisite produce in the precise amounts (often small) that I want. I am not penalized, as I am in so many supermarkets, for buying in small quantities when the "family sizes" are much more economical.
One of the criteria for the Forbes ranking is the percentage of singles in each city. In fact, Forbes counts that twice as much as any of their other criteria. This seems to be another "good for becoming unsingle" marker, and it is sometimes discussed that way. I like places with other single people, too, but more for their potential as friends. In fact, what matters to me is not so much marital status per se, but openness to relating as an independent person. My close friends who are married tend to be those who are not glued to their partners. In those relationships, my friend and I are both interested in spending one-on-one time with each other, and the married person's spouse does not have a problem with that.
Adults who are single, regardless of their age, are no longer unusual. But different places seem to have different attitudes toward singles, especially singles who, in other people's opinion, are at an age when they "should" be married. Forbes ranks cities on how "cool" they are. I want to know how cool they are with singles. As a single person, I'd want to stay away from cities that tend to fly into moral panics about people who are not the same as everyone else. I'm also fond of places that are not totally obsessed with couples and weddings - matrimania, as I like to call it.
I have not spent all that much time in Seattle, but my impression is that it is not a very matrimaniacal place, and quite welcoming to singles. I have a copy of the February 2007 issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine. February! How many magazines, in February, have kissing couples gracing the covers of a special Valentine's Day issue? Not Seattle Metropolitan. Their cover story is about comfort food, and the 73 top spots for finding it. (Seattle ranks 8th in the Forbes list of 40. Like Boston, it too would have done better - for people who want to live their single lives and not escape them - if online dating were excluded as a criterion. Seattle ranked 20th in online dating.)
Forbes gives credit to cities that have a vibrant nightlife. Many singles enjoy nightlife even if they are not looking to become unsingle. Personally, what I love about the Santa Barbara area is its daylife. There are so many places I can go on my own and not feel self-conscious (though I'm not particularly prone to that feeling). There are beaches to walk, spectacular hiking trails, farmers' markets, coffee shops, bookstores, and lots of events featuring authors, lecturers, and political activists.
There's so much more to say, but I've already written plenty. Now I'd love to hear from you. (And, of course, feel free to circulate this to others who may want to contribute their thoughts.)