Looking for a last-minute Valentine’s Day reservation? It might be easier to get one this year than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic — and not just because some people are still avoiding dining indoors. A new survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life shows that more people — particularly young women — are single than before the pandemic. And they might not be mad about it.
Marriage has been getting less common for a while. A Pew Research Center report published in 2021 found that the share of American adults ages 25 to 54 who are married fell by almost 15 percentage points between 1990 and 2019, from 67 percent to 53 percent. The rising share of unmarried people living with a partner accounted for a bit of that drop, but it was mostly driven by people living without a spouse or partner. In 1990, adults were more than twice as likely to be married than on their own, but by 2019, the gap between the two groups had narrowed considerably.
But how do Americans feel about the rise of single life? The new survey — and other research conducted within the past few years — shows that a decent chunk of people without a romantic partner are single by choice. According to the Survey Center on American Life, single people were about as likely to say that they’re not currently dating anyone and not looking to date (41 percent) as they were to say they were not dating someone but open to it (42 percent). Older people had different justifications for not dating than younger people — but for the most part, it wasn’t because they felt undesirable. Instead, more people said that they like being single, can’t find someone who meets their expectations, or just have more important priorities right now.
|Enjoy being single more than being in a relationship
|People aren’t interested in dating me
|Cannot find someone who meets my expectations
|Find it difficult to meet people
|Have more important priorities right now
Daniel Cox, the primary researcher behind the new survey and a FiveThirtyEight contributor, told me that he was struck by the fact that Gen Z respondents — particularly women — were more likely than older Americans to say that they were friends with their partner before they started dating. And bear in mind — these are the people who are most likely to have tried online dating. “There’s what people say they’re going to do on a survey, but then there’s also the choices and decisions they’re reporting, which is significant too,” Cox said. “This suggests a significant pushback [among young Americans] against online dating as a way to meet partners.”
It might not be especially romantic, but changing economic calculations could explain some of these shifts. In many ways, single people are more economically vulnerable than married people — they pay more in taxes, tend to have lower earnings and are slightly less likely to be employed. The challenges are even bigger for single mothers. But single women without kids may be in a better financial position than other singles. According to a 2022 analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, single women without children had a median wealth that was more than nine times higher than single women with children — and slightly higher than single men with or without children.
The idea that women are better off financially without children isn’t new — the “motherhood penalty,” as it’s called by economists, is well studied — and it’s a reason why many women are delaying getting married and having kids. But it could help explain why college-educated women are more likely than women without college degrees to say they aren’t dating because they can’t find someone who meets their expectations. Being financially self-sufficient gives women a choice they didn’t have when men dominated the workforce. In the past, women might have married because of a need for financial stability, said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies families. “It’s an advantage to not need to be married, in terms of economics or social pressure,” he said. “People can improve their career status and happiness on their own terms, and they can set the terms for potential mates in the future.”
Cox also thinks that women’s expectations for a partner may be shifting along with gender roles — and not in ways that benefit men who are interested in dating women. “Women who can provide for themselves might look for a partner who’s emotionally engaged, who’s attentive — instead of trying to find someone who can put food on the table,” he said. And if they can’t get those qualities from a romantic partner, they might look elsewhere. In another survey, Cox found that women are almost twice as likely as men to say they get emotional support from friends. Men looking to date women may be facing a double disadvantage, he said: They’re less likely to have friends who fill this emotional void and thus have fewer opportunities to develop the traits that potential partners want from them.
So are things worse for single men than single women? There do seem to be more single men who haven’t found what they’re looking for: The new study found that 52 percent of single young men (ages 18 to 29) were not dating but open to it, compared to 36 percent of single young women. Women were also more likely than men to say that they weren’t dating because they have other priorities right now.
But Cox said that it’s understandable why single women — particularly young single women without children — wouldn’t be in a hurry to find a partner. According to the survey, 38 percent of women under the age of 30 think marriage is old-fashioned and out of date, compared to 29 percent of young men. “If you’ve got friends and a job you like and the dating apps are full of people you’re skeptical about, what’s the rush?”