Jessica Kaschube has relied on the economic advantages of being married to pursue her career.
During almost a dozen years of marriage, the extra income from her husband’s more stable jobs — and his health insurance — has enabled Kaschube to move from Montana to Alabama to Florida, advancing her career as a theater administrator in an arts profession known for low pay and instability.
“Each move allowed me to make another jump in my career path. He always had a stable income,” said Kaschube, 35, who lives in metro Orlando. “Because I had health insurance and a spouse that had an income, we could always pay our bills. We weren’t rolling in money, but that was a privilege.”
A new study from Pew Research Center released Tuesday underscores the economic advantages of being married, especially as the share of single people in the U.S. has grown over the past three decades. The flip side, of course, is that it’s harder to be single, researchers say, since the unpartnered population earns less and has less education. Unpartnered men, in particular, are less likely to be employed.
The share of the U.S. population not living with a romantic partner during prime working years has grown from 29% to 38% from 1990 to 2019. Around 28% of single people between the ages of 25 to 54 are living with their parents, compared to 2% for married or partnered couples. Additionally, the growth of the unpartnered population over almost 30 years has been sharper in men than women, according to the Pew study, which used decennial census and American Community Survey data.
Policymakers should take notice since the unpartnered population is generally economically disadvantaged and less healthy compared to married people or those living with a romantic partner, said Richard Fry, a senior economist at Pew.
“When we look at their health outcomes, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking. Single adults don’t live as long,” Fry said. “Single adults are an at-risk population.”
Bella DePaulo, a research psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cautioned that this Pew report could further stigmatize the unpartnered population “if it is used as a way of telling a misleading story about those poor single people and what is supposedly wrong with them.”
“Yes, single people are paid less, have fewer resources available to them when they need help, and are disadvantaged in other ways, too. But some of that — maybe a lot of it — is based on discrimination against single people, not on anything that is supposedly wrong with them,” DePaulo said in an email.
The rise in single people has been driven by a three-decade decline in marriage. The share of adults ages 25 to 54 who are married dropped from two-thirds in 1990 to just over half in 2019, and the share of people who have never married grew from 17% to 33%. While the unpartnered population includes people who are separated, divorced or widowed, all the growth comes from people who have never been married, the Pew report said.
The growth in the unpartnered population has been sharper in men than women. It was around 29% for both sexes in 1990, but it jumped to 39% for men and 36% for women by 2019.
Single women earned more in 1990, but their advantage was reversed by 2019 as partnered women became more likely to remain in the workforce.
Single men, meanwhile, have fallen further behind partnered men in earnings and education. Researchers have concluded it’s a combination of high-income men being more attractive as partners, and cohabitating boosting men’s economic fortunes.
“We have a ‘chicken or egg’ problem. It’s a little bit of both, especially for guys,” Fry said. “They are assessed on their financial capabilities, so some of this is because the unpartnered guys tend to have lower earnings. They are having a harder time. They are considered a less suitable partner. It’s low earnings and being less educated that is causing them to be unpartnered.”
Despite the disadvantages, many single people find that the rewards of being unattached outweigh any economic benefits of being partnered. That includes DePaulo, who wrote an essay for Medium last month celebrating her 50th anniversary of being single as she turned 68.
“Please send gifts — not to me, but to every person you know who is thriving in their single life,” she wrote. “Single people who are living fully, joyfully, and unapologetically. People for whom single life is their best life. I call them ‘single at heart.’ Congratulate them for never caving to the relentless pressure to put a romantic partner at the center of their life.”
Single people invest more in friendships and enjoy more freedom and solitude, and some studies show they are happier over time, she said in the email.
“Single people are doing quite well in many ways, despite all the ways they are unfairly disadvantaged relative to people who are married or coupled,” DePaulo said.