A shorter version of this story appeared in the Toronto Star, February 12, 2011.
“Why are people afraid of being alone?” It’s a question 42-year-old Dave Atkinson of Port Credit raises when he’s asked why he’s unmarried and childless.
It’s rare that Atkinson gets explicitly challenged on his marital and parental status. But come February, with Valentine’s Day and Family Day packed into the shortest month of the year, it’s tough for those who are single or childless to avoid the message that they’ve missed the boat.
And that’s ironic, given the demographic shifts of the last few decades. Those shifts are influencing consumption patterns, healthcare issues, our collective environmental impact and other social issues—but are largely being ignored as we continue to focus firmly on family and kids, says Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Singled Out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized and ignored but still live happily ever after (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007) and Single With Attitude: Not your typical take on health and happiness, love and money, marriage and friendship (CreateSpace, 2009). “Singles are no longer marking time until the day they become unsingle,” says DePaulo. “They’re pursuing their passions, nurturing friendships and creating nets of people they care about and who care about them.”
And while February’s holidays may be sending the message that kids and marriage are the norm, for more and more Canadians, they aren’t. The shifts crystallized for the first time in 2006 when according to Canadian census data 51.5% of people over age 15 were unmarried, the first time unmarried people outnumbered the wedded since the census began in 1871. That same census signaled a second turning point: for the first time since 1871, there were also more families without children at home (42.7%) than those with (41.4%).
The numbers aren’t quite as straightforward as they first look. For instance, not all of those unmarried Canadians are single—the number includes those living common law. And that “households without children” number captures empty nesters whose children simply don’t live under the same roof.
I never played with baby dolls. I played with Barbie dolls, and they had very interesting careers and very interesting sex lives, but they didn’t have children.
But the number of truly single households is growing, with 30% of Canadian households occupied by singles, a number expected to hit almost 40% by 2026. And Canada isn’t alone in that change: around the world, the percentage of one-person households is on the rise, expected to grow at almost twice the rate of average population growth over the next decade, according to global market research company Euromonitor International.
At the same time, childlessness is growing as well: in the early 1970s, figures from the US and other developed countries showed that about 1 in 10 women over the age of 40 had never borne a child. Today that proportion—in the US, Canada and a number of other developed countries—sits at 1 in 5. It’s a shift driven by both expanding economic and birth control choices for women and more recently amplified by a change in what researchers have dubbed “transition timing.” With more young people delaying leaving the family home, they’re also putting off having children of their own—and the longer they leave it, the less likely some of them are to ever have kids.
“I never played with baby dolls. I played with Barbie dolls, and they had very interesting careers and very interesting sex lives, but they didn’t have children,” says Diane Forrest, a financial services communications specialist in her early 50s. “I just don’t think that instinct is very well developed in me, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.” Forrest is happy to be of a generation where her choices about marriage and children were within her control. For her, that choice meant no kids but does include a long-term boyfriend—and separate residences. She lives near the Don Valley while he lives near High Park. “We’re the first generation of women who really, really had choices,” she says. “There were a lot of obstacles, but basically we could do what we wanted and I was very conscious of that growing up.”
Part of that awareness was driven by the examples she saw around her. Her grandmother “was a terrible mother—she should have been a professor of theology or something like that, there was no way she wanted to have kids and probably not a husband either, but what else was she to do? Those were the only choice available.” Forrest’s sister Sue, 10 years her senior, was living the life of a carefree 20-something, traveling the world and teaching. And Forrest’s family had always maintained connections with a number of never-married aunts—“a long line of spinster school teachers” she laughs—who seemed quite happy.
But still, that cliché of a childless life being an empty one is hard to shake. “ Sometimes when I’m reading obituaries and I read about a childless, unmarried woman, I think ‘Oh my god, that’s so sad,’” says Forrest. “And then I think ‘Wait a minute, that’s me!’”
For Dave Atkinson, his single childless status is driven less by an explicit decision to avoid kids and marriage and more by a decision in favour of a life structured around travel. For the last two decades, Atkinson has spent half the year working in Canada and the other half traveling the globe. It’s not a life that makes long-term relationships easy. It’s also not a life of luxury: he operates a one-man window and eavestrough cleaning company six months of the year, working 12-hour days and living in a modestly furnished bachelor apartment. Then, come winter, he packs a 28-litre backpack—“basically the size of a child’s school backpack”—and heads to sunnier climates.
And when someone suggests that his lifestyle might be, well, selfish? “Selfish means you’re doing something for your benefit to the detriment of others. If I choose not to have kids, that’s not about being selfish, it’s just about being a realist. I like ‘em but I don’t want them,” says Atkinson. “It’s more self-absorbed than selfish really. But I make no apologies for it.”
Not all childless singles are quite as secure in voicing their status, though, says DePaulo, despite research showing that more than half of all singles are not looking to embark on a committed relationship. “Single people who really like their lives feel reluctant to say so because they’re wary of getting the response that ‘you’re fooling yourself’ or ‘there’s something wrong with you,’” she says. “So they moderate their response: they say they’re not looking right now because that’s more socially acceptable. And when people don’t say they like being single, it makes other people reluctant to say they like being single.”
It doesn’t help, she says, that anti-single stereotypes are so prevalent that coupled friends and family routinely suggest that singles “must have issues” if they say they’re single and happy. “Can you imagine saying to a married person [who says they’re happy], ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so dependent?’”
The stereotypes differ slightly by gender, says DePaulo. For women, you’re either a promiscuous party girl who no-one will marry or a pathetic sad sack who can’t get a date. If you’re male, single and childless, you’re either a hopeless slob living in your parents’ basement, a closeted homosexual or a suspicious potential child predator.
A 2008 study by the U.S. Pew Research Center demonstrated the strength of those stereotypes. In testing voting patterns, the study presented voters with four potential candidates: a woman with children and one without, and a man with children and one without. The man without children scored the fewest votes, the man with children the most (the women were tied in the middle).
Those stereotypes can be more deadly as well. DePaulo cites a US study of healthcare workers that found singles admitted to hospital received lower quality care than patients surrounded by family, with workers admitting that they presumed that the singles weren’t worthy of the same level of care because they weren’t surrounded by loved ones.
DePaulo also points out that singles generally don’t get access to the “piñata of benefits” that come with being coupled. Their health insurance and pension benefits offer fewer options than those available to couples—they can’t opt-in non-spouses for insurance coverage and their pensions revert to the state or company pension plan when they die rather than being assumed by a designated beneficiary. They can pay higher prices to travel alone—or even to socialize closer to home. “A couple coming to dinner brings a bottle of wine,” says DePaulo. “A single person doesn’t get to bring half a bottle.”
Fortunately for singles, there is an upside: they also tend to have more wealth, especially if they’re childless. According to a 2009 study of older Americans, unmarried childless men have as much as one-third more wealth than their peers, while unmarried childless women were one-third more wealthy than unmarried mothers.
While the cost of singlehood can be irritating for singles, it’s both a boost to the economy and a potential problem for the environment. According to a 2007 report by Euromonitor International, the rise in single-person households has pushed up the purchase of homes by singles along with the consumption of appliances, electronic goods and in-home entertainment. At the same time, though, those single households take up more space per capita and consume more energy and resources than shared households. A 2006 study of UK single households found that one-person households consume 38% more products, 42% more packaging, 55% more electricity and 61% more gas per capita than four-person households.
Still, the full impact of a shift toward singlehood may be yet to be felt, says DePaulo, as these new generations of singles move into old age. It’s something Dave Atkinson and Diane Forrest are already planning for. Atkinson is socking away savings so that he can purchase a small rural property for his time in Canada, though he hopes to keep traveling beyond Canada’s borders for as long as possible. Forrest says she’s conscious of keeping younger friends in her life and jokes that she’s making sure she’s “nice to my nephew’s wife, since she’ll likely be the one choosing what nursing home I end up in.”
But she’s also got something else in mind: “I have a couple of friends who are in a similar situation to me and we’re talking about what we call the Old Broad’s Home,” she says. “The idea is that we’ll buy a fourplex and get some university student to live in the basement and plow the snow and stuff like that. And if we have guys at the time, we might let them come along too.”
“People are making plans that centre on the people who are important to them,” says DePaulo, “to move to the same city or the same neighbourhood or to share a big house. We’re seeing more experiments in living. It’s hard to track, but it’s there.”
And maybe, by then, February’s celebrations of lovers and families will be joined by a third—this one focused on friends.
Listen to the radio documentary Tina Pittaway and I did on singles at http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/shift/2010/12/24/single-file-1/