The Rising 'One' Population

April 6, 2019
By Zhang RuinanEditor: Sandy Zhu

In the US, more than 45% of those age 18 or over are single, with the number in China about 15% (200 million people). The increase in singles is expected to have enormous consequences on housing, healthcare, population levels and consumer habits.

For Ashley Gray, a 26-year-old web developer living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, her best time is in the evening, after a long and tiring day at work — and when she is alone.

"I will cook my own dinner – I can eat whatever I want, and I will go to the gym, then get beers and watch my favorite shows on Netflix," said Gray, who has been single for about five years after breaking up with her college boyfriend. "Or I can choose to hang out with my friends."

She said she likes to be free to go with the flow and be responsible only for herself, and not having to compromise.

"I just feel like I'm happier and more myself [when I'm alone]," Gray said, adding she's also busy trying to advance her career, so she doesn't want to spend extra time on taking care of a partner or children if she gets into a relationship or gets married.

"So, I think I won't get married until I'm 33," Gray said.

Like Gray, more women and men in the US are single — more than 45 percent of all Americans age 18 or older, the US Census Bureau reported in 2017 — and the number of single households around the world also is increasing.

Singles make up about 14.6 percent — about 200 million — of China's population, the largest singles population in the world, People's Daily reported.

Sweden has the highest rate of people staying single, 51 percent of all households, according to 2017 data from the European Union's Eurostat.

Sweden is followed by Denmark, Finland and Germany, which all have more than 40 percent one-person households.

The never-married population age 16 years and over in England and Wales increased by 3.9 million from 2002 to 2017, while the number of married people increased only by 1.2 million during the same period, UK Census reported.

Factors contributing to the rise of one-person households include new views on marriage, high levels of divorce, increased education that leads to more employment and better-paying career opportunities, and increased longevity and improved health at older ages.

The growth of one-person households could have numerous consequences for society, ranging from housing and health care to the fertility rate and consumption patterns, say experts. 

New view of marriage

In the US, one major reason for staying single is that marriage isn't viewed as it once was, and the age at which one gets married is also rising, the Census report shows.

More than half of the participants in a nationally representative sample (55 percent) said that getting married was not an important criterion for becoming an adult, according to the Census report. The same percentage also said that having a child was not an important milestone of adulthood.

"Decades ago, people often waited (or tried to wait) until marrying before having kids, having sex, or buying a home," Bella DePaulo, a social scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told China Daily in an email. "Now those possibilities are readily available outside of marriage."

The author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored said at the same time, people start to see the positive aspects of living single, such as being free to pursue their passions, enjoying solitude and putting the people they care most about at the center of their lives, instead of a romantic partner.

Other factors contributing to the rise of one-person households include high levels of divorce, increased education that leads to more employment and better-paying career opportunities, and increased longevity and improved health at older ages.

As of 2017, the average age of a first marriage for women was about 27.5, while it was 29.5 for men. Demographers estimate that about 80 percent of Americans will marry at some point in their lives.

That's a lot lower than the 95 percent who married in the 1950s and 1960s, and it may drop somewhat more, according to Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian and author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

"But it doesn't mean marriage is dead. It just means that marriage is no longer the only place where people make all their major financial and personal decisions, or incur obligations to others," Coontz said.

"First of all, I haven't met my Mr. Right. Also, I'm extremely responsible with my own finances – I have to pay my rent and my student loans every month," said Michelle Yu, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California, who just started her first job at a publishing company in Los Angeles. Yu has been single for more than four years.

"So, if my partner also has a ton of student loans or is in a bad financial situation, I'd rather be alone," said Yu. "Now, I can well manage my own money and I'm saving the down payment for buying an apartment in my neighborhood. I like to do that on my own pace."

Yu said she has two very good friends who are single. "We hang out together every weekend, and I enjoy being with my friends more than going on a date with someone I just met — that's why I think I will be not actively looking for a relationship in the next few years," she added.

Coontz said one reason people are waiting longer to get married is because more of them, especially women, are going to college. Even after graduation, most people want to wait until they have paid off at least a good portion of their college debt and acquired a steady job, she said.

Two earners are increasingly necessary for people to establish a middle-class lifestyle, so most individuals want to make sure that they and their partner have decent earnings prospects.

"Another part of the answer is that our expectations of marriage — especially women's expectations — are much higher than in the past, and their options outside marriage are greater," said Coontz. "So, they can be more 'picky' about their mates, and they can afford to wait until they find one who suits them."

She said women, and men too, want someone who can earn a decent salary, but many women now rank other factors higher, such as willingness to share housework and child care.

Coontz said that the increasing inequality in society means that many low-income individuals — male or female — aren't seen as good marriage prospects.

"Often, couples who are for each other will cohabit in order to save money or explore their relationship more," she said. "But they hesitate to marry until they feel they have enough economic security to relieve them of the chronic stress that undermines relationships."

As women are becoming more self-reliant, the gap between their pay and men's has been decreasing over the past century.

According to a journal published last year by sociologists Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett and Matthew Stimpson, the decline of marriage rates is related to both men's declining economic resources and the rising rate of incarceration.

According to data released by the US Federal Bureau of Prisons last year, 93 percent of inmates in the US are men. The nation's incarceration rate peaked at 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults during the three-year period between 2006 and 2008; the number was 310 in 1980.

When men are confined to jail or prison, or when a criminal record trails them following their release, they may become less attractive candidates for marriage.

A 2018 study conducted by the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, based on an analysis of 13,429 responses on Reddit, a popular social media website in the US, shows that the most frequent reasons that men indicated for being single included poor looks, low self-esteem and confidence, low effort, not interested in relationships, no available women and poor flirting skills.

"To be honest, sometimes I do get lonely, but it's never strong enough to make me think I wish I had someone," said Martin West, a 34-year-old self-employed small business owner in New York. "I do enjoy relationships, but being single has some perks that a relationship can't give you – so much disposable income, so much freedom in every aspect, no conflict or drama."

West said he has been single for more than eight years, and so far, he's still enjoying it. "And I've been through bad relationships — they are horrible."

He said his lifestyle is healthier when he is single, and he is also more focused on his own business than when in a relationship.

"But if I meet the right girl, then sure I'll lay my cards on the table and go all in," West added.

Just as West indicated, more studies now show that single people are becoming healthier, both mentally and physically.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Women's Health found that unmarried women are living healthier than ever before. They had lower body mass indices, waist sizes and risks related to smoking and alcohol, compared with married individuals.

"A bad marriage is actually a health risk — people who are unhappily married have higher blood pressure and lower immune systems than happily married or single people," Coontz said.

She said that now that people are living alone longer and learning how to care for themselves instead of depending on a partner, they are practicing healthier lifestyles.

"For example, unmarried men used to dramatically be less healthy than married men, but recently they have come close to closing the gap," she said.

DePaulo said that in the US, there's also a lot of research showing that single people are more social than married people.

"They participate more in the events in their cities and towns, and do more to stay in touch with, and exchange help with, their parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and neighbors," she added.

The internet also allows single people to stay connected with others even when they are home alone, DePaulo said.

Household impact

As recently as 1940, 61 percent of single-person households consisted of renters, but today owners are in the majority, with the 2013 American Housing Survey reporting that 54 percent of single-person households were owner-occupied.

According to the survey, between 2003 and 2013, owners accounted for 55 percent of the growth in single-person households. And among single-person households led by someone under the age of 45, two thirds are renters, but among single-person households with someone over the age of 65, owners are a 70 percent majority.

Single-person households tend to spend more on housing than others, and these households may prefer to rent rather than buy houses. And even if they do buy a house, the preference is for multifamily homes rather than single-family ones, according to Deloitte senior US economist Daniel Bachman.

That may influence the structure of the housing market, which is still recovering from the impact of the recession of 2008 and recent changes in housing finance, Bachman wrote in an article.

"We know that multifamily construction recovered more quickly than single-family construction and remains relatively strong," Bachman told China Daily. "This may be because of greater demand for smaller housing units."

He said it also may be due to financial limits (mortgages for single-family homes have become harder to obtain) or because of greater demand for living in central cities, where people are more likely to live in multifamily buildings.

A 2018 study by the real estate listings site Zillow indicates that single women can afford to purchase only 39 percent of US homes on the market, but they are buying them at a rate that far exceeds that of single men, who are able to purchase more than half of the homes currently for sale.

"The housing market will need to make lots of changes to accommodate the growing number of single people, especially the single women who are buying a lot of homes," said DePaulo. "Some will want small places, such as studios or one-bedroom places, though others will want an extra bedroom for a study or for guests."

"In a situation of rising income inequality, the ability of affluent two-earner couples to outbid single people for homes is a real problem," said Coontz, adding that it's exacerbated in America by the extremely uneven quality of local schools, so that people get into bidding wars over homes in good school districts.

"We have to think through our housing policies, zoning laws and social investments to find better ways to produce affordable housing (for singles)," she added.

A rise in single-person households may aid labor market mobility, according to Bachman. With fewer attachments to property and free of marital burdens, these individuals may be more open to shifting cities for jobs, which could make the labor market more mobile.

US fertility rate falling

At the same time, single-person households will have to cope with lower availability of informal personal care from partners, Bachman wrote. Such nonmarket production (as economists would define it) may need to be replaced by purchased personal care services, especially health and nursing care, which could significantly impact the healthcare industry.

In 2017, the fertility rate in the US hit a historic low, data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year shows.

The number of births in the US dropped by 2 percent between 2016 and 2017, to 60.2 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. It's the lowest the rate has been in 30 years.

"Fertility rates are falling, and lifelong childlessness is on the rise, but most women continue to have at least one child, even if they do not marry," Coontz said.

She added that obviously it's hard to raise a child on one's own, without a partner or a supportive kinship group, and it's especially difficult when money and time are scarce.

"But this is an issue that societies have to face head-on instead of wishing it would go away," she said. "Marriage-promotion efforts have been singularly ineffective all around the world where they have been tried."

Coontz said it's important that government provides a safety net for all children.

DePaulo said the increase in the number of single households has implications for all aspects of society, and more things will need to change as the single population continues to grow.

For example, she cited how food is sold.

"Supermarkets can't just offer big family-sized packages of things," she said, and prices on things also need to be fair so "single people should not be charged more per person than couples are''.

"The way we value other people also has to change," DePaulo added.

(Souce: China Daily)

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