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Growing percentage of American adults are living single

By Bethany Bray December 1, 2021

A growing share of American adults are living the single life.

The Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 38% of American adults between the ages of 25 and 54 were not married or living with a romantic partner. This number has increased significantly in the past two decades, with only 29% being unpartnered in 1990. While this population includes individuals who are divorced, separated or widowed, an increasing portion have never been married.

The number of married adults fell from 67% to 53% between 1990 and 2019, and the percentage of people who were cohabitating with a partner rose slightly from 4% to 9%. Also, the share of adults who have never been married jumped from 17% to 33% during that time period.

Men are more likely to be unpartnered than women, Pew reports. However, the one exception to this rule is among Black women, with 62% of Black women and 55% of Black men living without a spouse or romantic partner.

Overall, the race and ethnicity breakdown for Americans ages 25 to 54 who were unpartnered in 2019 was as follows:

  • 59% of Black adults
  • 38% of Hispanics
  • 33% of whites
  • 29% of Asians

This evolution of Americans’ living arrangements has also laid bare the financial and other disparities that exist between coupled and single adults. Pew found that adults who live without a partner earn less (on average) than coupled adults, are less likely to finish a bachelor’s degree and are more likely to be financially unstable or unemployed. Single adults’ median salary is $14,000 less than coupled adults, Pew reports.

These statistics create many questions for the counseling profession, including the emotional and relational needs that might arise among single individuals, says Katherine M. Hermann-Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling & Psychology at Tennessee Technological University whose doctoral cognate was in couples and family counseling.

“Many counselors are likely seeing unpartnered clients or family members of unpartnered individuals for services, but what do we know about the stressors of this demographic? … The first step is [for counselors to have an] awareness that this is a growing demographic,” says Hermann-Turner, a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of ACA. “My antenna as a counselor, particularly someone who operates from a systems perspective and relational-cultural theory framework, goes to the potential increased need for emotional connection for unpartnered individuals rather than the economic stressors faced by this demographic.”

In addition to the financial and economic disparities, Pew also found that unpartnered adults were more likely to be living with their parents than adults who are married or cohabitating. Thirty-one percent of unpartnered men and 24% of unpartnered women lived with at least one parent in 2019, which is much higher than that statistic for partnered adults (2% for both men and women).

Hermann-Turner notes that this information raises further questions about what clients who fall into this demographic might need when working with a professional counselor.

“Are these individuals substituting the support of their family of origin for partnership or reliance on external systems of support (i.e., romantic partnership)?,” she asks. “If so, why is this the route for many individuals given the typical complexity of a family system? Is this evidence of an earlier lack of career guidance? Underdeveloped relational skills? If so, how can we as counselors begin to intervene earlier and develop these skills in a younger population? Should we be reconceptualizing family counseling to include an emphasis on adult children and their parents? … I am intentionally avoiding the ‘chicken or egg’ argument and pondering the possibility that enmeshed family systems have intentionally stunted one child’s ability for emotional independence as a way to serve the needs of the parents.”

Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock.com

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What do you think? How might these demographic shifts affect the work counselors do with clients? How should the profession adapt to help clients and meet their needs?

Add your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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Read more from the Pew Research Center: https://pewrsr.ch/3DeLtrm

 

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4 Comments

  1. Patricia G. Morrison

    I know this study seemed to deal with the ages below 60 but a lot of the financial and counseling needs I believe apply to us older adults as well. I am 70 live alone and I am considering going into counseling again. I went in the late 90’s. It is very hard being alone sometimes.

    Reply
  2. R.M. Phillips

    What do you think? How might these demographic shifts affect the work counselors do with clients? How should the profession adapt to help clients and meet their needs?

    I am not too sure what the outcome will totally be with this study. However, there will definitely be a need for some professionals to be accessible for the individuals who fall into this category. I may end up being one of those myself, especially since I am currently almost an empty nester on the end leg of raising a second set of children.

    I would think some type of programs would be modified to accommodate people who will no doubt be experiencing some form of mental and physical discomfort. support would be the most necessary thing to implement to diminish the negative effects these individuals would be inclined to experience.

    Looking overall at the possible dysfunction that will surface would probably require a host of others to take on the task of doing further research more from a ground level approach to actually be in the actual day to day of what life looks like for those who subscribe to being a member of this studies particular population.

    Knowing this information is something that causes for more services and supports to be acquired, creates a heightened concern for many social issues of concern that are already quite relevant and concerning today. Increased alcohol and substances use, unprotected sexual behavior, as well as increased unhealthy use off online dating sites, which can be a serious hot bed of many different unwarranted behaviors and acts that can be considered suspect and often times criminal.

    There is however a need to be even more vigilant and engaging with individuals now more that ever. we have experienced hearing so many reports on individuals being found deceased in their homes not being noticed, because we know some people may truly have an undiagnosed level of isolating, which can be quite severe and deadly when the human connection is not continuously explored.

    There are a lot of times when people really do not understand what it means to be alone and what that aloneness can do the psyche. the brain depletes in its abilities when it is not being stimulated and the same is also true for the human body. We are made to socialize and engage one another and some where over the years this has become irrelevant.

    However, this study is a prime example of what the helping field is going to really have to consider and expect to implement some form of access to services to offer support for these members, while also preparing for an almost baby boomer effect to be felt. The professional field of mental health will need to increase their ability to be more innovative and creative to serve those who seek to be supported while ascribing to some level of presence within this actual body of membership.

    Reply
  3. Erna Nardi Malave

    This study references the age group of 25-54 based on ethnicity. There is no mentioned of those adults over age 54 which appears to skew this study, especially considering the percentage of Baby Boomers. The study also did not address the subject of being non partnered for the LGBTQ population. It would also would be useful to identify for each population the data for subjects previously married, divorced, widowed, never married. Finally, it would be interesting to have data be geographic location if limited to the U.S.A. or by country, continent if other countries are part of the study.

    Reply
  4. Stuart Chen-Hayes

    I think there is way more going on here than the researchers realize.
    1. Single folx have always ended up taking care of parents when sibilings are partnered or have their own children in families for generations.
    2. A lot of single folx are happier single than partnered
    3. Friendship networks can be a rich source of support and joy for single folx
    4. Queer and trans folx are more likely to be single and family of choice is a critical social support
    5. So many folx are single due to capitalism and how awful the work world has been for so many workers. Skyrocketing medical and college debt make it very hard to have long-term relationships b/c of the burden of not having the economic resources to do so
    6. Many folx of color are from families where the family unit and taking care of parents is the most important responsibility in life–there is a Eurocentric bias here that is deeply troubling.

    Reply

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