Rise of the Singles
Fewer 40-year-olds are married than ever. Here's the good and the bad.
According to new data from Pew, a record share of American 40-year-olds have never been married: One in four, up from one in five in 2010. In 1980, when people now in their early 40s were being born, just 6% of American 40-year-olds had never married; now, it’s 25%.
This is a huge shift. And while it has come along with an uptick in unmarried cohabitation, only 22% of unmarried 40-year-olds are living with a romantic partner. That means that more Americans are hitting 40 living alone, with roommates, or with non-romantic family members, and that more Americans are hitting 40 while single, than ever before.
Here’s the good news about the rise in unmarried 40-year-olds: It suggests that heterosexual marriage has gone from socially compulsory to largely optional (if still aspirational). It means greater diversity in how people are structuring their families. It almost certainly means fewer women in abusive marriages, and fewer women married to jerks who don’t particularly like or respect them. And rising age of first marriage means that these unmarried-at-40 statistics don’t tell us anywhere close to the full story of marriage in the United States. In large liberal cities in particular, it’s not at all unusual to get married for the first time in your 40s, or to have a child in that same decade of life. For college-educated people in particular, young adulthood lasts longer than ever, and is likely to be capped off with significant stability in middle adulthood. For many women, this means unprecedented freedom, and far greater wellbeing.
It’s hard to overstate just how significant this shift has been. In 1980, the average age at first marriage for American women was 22. Today, just 6% of Americans marry by the time they’re 21.
Rising age of first marriage and decreased marriage rates have also meant that far fewer marriages end in divorce — when people aren’t quite so socially pressured into getting married, and when they have more time to figure out who they are and what they want, they pick more suitable partners and wind up in more stable relationships. Fewer divorces is better for individual mental health, as well as for children, and certainly for a family’s financial health (and for women’s financial health in particular — divorce has historically plunged a lot of women into financial chaos or even poverty).
This is also good news for liberals. In 2022, single voters broke for Democrats 59-39; married voters broke for Republicans by almost an identical margin. And that leftward lean came from unmarried women, 68% of whom voted Dem in 2022. Unmarried men, by contrast, leaned Republican, and married men were the most conservative of all. Human beings are social animals, and it seems the more women are tied to men, the more women adopt the politics of those men (that dynamic could be its own post — some day I’ll write it).
We see decreasing marriage rates coming along with other liberalizing social trends: More girls graduating from high school and more women graduating from college; more women in the workplace; fewer women having children, or women having fewer children; fewer Americans going to church or organizing their moral lives around religious principles. Single women, the nonreligious — these are America’s pro-choice feminist voters. Unmarried women have different priorities and needs than married women, and are more likely than ever before to have children. The Democratic Party, while far from perfect, has proven itself much more adept at catering to these voters’ demands, and making their lives marginally better. The Republican solution — get married and figure it out for yourself — doesn’t quite work.
The high proportion of unmarried 40-year-olds also suggests higher-than-ever proportions of unmarried 20- and 30-somethings, and that shifting cultural norm of later or no marriage means women whose lives are often richer and more varied. Unmarried people, and especially unmarried people without kids, are the economic engine of many urban industries, from bars to restaurants to clubs to music venues to exercise studios and gyms. Of course married people and parents exercise, go out to eat, and listen to live music, but spaces like gyms and bars and concert halls are disproportionately filled with the young and less-tethered. The pre-Covid revival of American cities was very much a story of young, single people moving into them, and then remaining unmarried much, much longer than their parents had. Cities have always been draws for single people, and with one’s single years extending ever longer and a large number of young single women working for pay, cities became more dynamic places.
But alas, there is a downside.