In a Married World, Singles Struggle for AttentionBy TARA PARKER-POPE
Here’s a September celebration you probably didn’t know about: It’s National Single and Unmarried Americans Week.
But maybe celebration isn’t the right word. Social scientists and researchers say the plight of the American single person is cause for growing concern.
About 100 million Americans, nearly half of all adults, are unmarried, according to the Census Bureau — yet they tend to be overlooked by policies that favor married couples, from family-leave laws to lower insurance rates.
That national bias is one reason gay people fight for the right to marry, but now some researchers are concerned that the marriage equality movement is leaving single people behind.
“There is this push for marriage in the straight community and in the gay community, essentially assuming that if you don’t get married there is something wrong with you,” says Naomi Gerstel, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who has published a number of papers comparing the married and unmarried.
“But a huge proportion of the population is unmarried, and the single population is only going to grow. At the same time, all the movement nationally is to offer benefits to those who are married, and that leaves single people dry.”
Yet as she and other experts note, single people often contribute more to the community — because once people marry, they tend to put their energy and focus into their partners and their own families at the expense of friendships, community ties and extended families.
In a report released this week by the Council on Contemporary Families, Dr. Gerstel notes that while 68 percent of married women offer practical or routine help to their parents, 84 percent of the never-married do. Just 38 percent of married men help their parents, compared with 67 percent of never-married men. Even singles who have children are more likely than married people to contribute outside their immediate family.
“It’s the unmarried, with or without kids, who are more likely to take care of other people,” Dr. Gerstel said. “It’s not having children that isolates people. It’s marriage.”
The unmarried also tend to be more connected with siblings, nieces and nephews. And while married people have high rates of volunteerism when it comes to taking part in their children’s activities, unmarried people often are more connected to the community as a whole. About 1 in 5 unmarried people take part in volunteer work like teaching, coaching other people’s children, raising money for charities and distributing or serving food.
Unmarried people are more likely to visit with neighbors. And never-married women are more likely than married women to sign petitions and go to political gatherings, according to Dr. Gerstel.
The demographics of unmarried people are constantly changing, and more Americans are spending a greater percentage of their lives unmarried than married. While some people never marry, other adults now counted as single are simply delaying marriage longer than people of their parents’ generation did. And many people are single because of divorce or the death of a spouse. About one-sixth of all unmarried adults are 65 and older; nearly one-eighth of unmarried people are parents.
The pressure to marry is particularly strong for women. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Missouri and Texas Tech University carried the title “I’m a Loser, I’m Not Married, Let’s Just All Look at Me.” The researchers conducted 32 interviews with middle-class women in their 30s who felt stigmatized by the fact that they had never married.
“These were very successful women in their careers and their lives, yet almost all of them felt bad about not being married, like they were letting someone down,” said Lawrence Ganong, a chairman of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri.
“If a person is happy being single,” he said, “then we should support that as well.”
Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has a term for discrimination against single people, which she calls one of the last accepted prejudices. It is the title of her new book, “Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters and How to Stop It.”
As an example, Dr. DePaulo cites the Family and Medical Leave Act. Because she is single and has no children, nobody in her life can take time off under the law to care for her if she becomes ill. Nor does it require that she be given time off to care for a sibling, nephew or close friend.
Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families, says policy makers often neglect the needs of single people because their view is outdated — based on the way they themselves grew up.
In researching her latest book, “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique in American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s,” Ms. Coontz found that in the past single people were often called “deviant,” “neurotic” and “selfish.”
“We do have the tendency to think that there is something special about married people, and that they are the ones who keep community and family going,” she said. “I thought it was important to point out that single people keep our community going, too.”