Last week, the Population Reference Bureau crunched some Census data and disgorged a rather shocking statistical nugget: For the first time in U.S. history, the number of young adults (those between 25 and 34) who have never been married exceeds those who are married.

A Wall Street Journal story adds some additional perspective: “The long-term slide in marriage rates has pushed the proportion of married adults of all ages to 52% in 2009, according to the Census, the lowest share in history. In 1960, 72.2% of adults over 18 were married.”

I don’t believe that demographics are destiny necessarily — but these numbers do qualify for what I call a BDD, a Big Demographic Deal. The implications are potentially huge — in economics, culture, politics, and business. Here are some questions off the top of my head:

  • Economics: It’s harder to buy a house with one income than two, and tougher to commit to a gigantic purchase if you’re living together instead of officially hitched. Is this trend another reason — i.e., weaker demand — that the housing market could stay sluggish for a long while? At the same time, these data seem further proof that women are gaining power economically. (Indeed, they’re already a majority of the U.S. workforce and, on average, are beating men on educational attainment.) Is this phenomenon a sign that women are finally gaining something close to economic parity? If so, what does that mean for everything from wage inequality to the work-family practices of companies?
  • Culture: We’re already hearing about 20-somethings delaying adulthood. Is this, like the new health care law’s allowing people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, another sign of a new stage of life — somewhere between adolescence and real adulthood? Also, it’s clear from the data that men are becoming more economically dependent on women, especially men without much formal education.  Does that suggest an impending backlash among men or perhaps a redefinition of masculinity?
  • Business: Seems to me a ton of new business could arise to take advantage of this trend.  What about gift registries or legal advice services for couples deciding to live together?  A line of single-sized gourmet food for well-compensated people eating alone?  What about a group buying service to give singletons some collective leverage in the marketplace?  Or a real estate brokerage devoted exclusively to helping single women with enough money to buy homes?  Since postponed (or never realized) marriage usually delays the decision to have children, will there be new opportunities in adoption services and fertility treatments?  Or fast-forward a few decades and imagine large numbers of elderly singles. Are we looking at dorms for seniors in 2060?  This is America, baby! Someone will figure out a way to make some money from this BDD.

24 Responses to “When “I do” becomes “I don’t””

  1. How about also no marriage penalty tax? Looks the the Government will need to find other ways to finance its spending this year, then. On a related note, an accountant I know, confessed that many couples he has worked with divorced and stayed together to get into a better tax bracket. Law of unintended consequences?

  2. gregorylent says:

    mystics have been saying this is coming for the last couple of decades. it is because human relationships are about something different now.

  3. ND says:

    Re: the possible redefinition of masculinity: I wonder if these young men know they will be more attractive to many young women if they can show both some basic career competence themselves and ability to focus on children (sometimes referred to as “being a dad”).

  4. Avatar photo Dan Pink says:

    @ND — Shhhhh. Don’t let out the secret!

  5. ND says:

    @DP – LOL 🙂

  6. Dan – Interesting especially since I’m getting married March 5th. We are both 26.

    I think a big part of it (among many things) is sort of life plan. I’m not talking about having EVERYTHING planned out (what fun would that be?) but instead having some of the deal breakers out of the way. For a lot of 20-somethings, it is an era of experimentation, trying different things, different jobs, (heck different dating partners) etc.

    In our case, I’m (as you know) a writer/entrepreneur and she is a psychiatrist. Unstable meets relatively stable.

    But, I’d say we are in the minority. Think about years ago. Most people would get a job and then try to climb the latter or have that same job for years and years. That is stability (real or perceived). Now with more free agents, entrepreneurs and others there is this constant change and perhaps that is messing with marriage (besides the other factors).

    Then again, perhaps many people still haven’t found that perfect puzzle piece.

  7. James Lytle says:

    Hey Dan, Another sign of the times indeed. What’s particularly interesting is considering why between ’82 and ’85 there seemed to be a shift from declining marriages among those with higher education (as opposed to a high school degree or less according to the study). What changed among these groups those with a higher education caught onto that those without didn’t?

    You’ve distracted me far too much with this interesting data! Btw, I’m looking forward to seeing you speak at Catalyst. I recently finished A Whole New Mind. Big fan. I Hope to get to say hey.

  8. CI says:

    Why do single women need more help buying houses than single men? Ohhhh, that’s right, single men don’t buy houses – they live with their parents.

  9. Maralyn says:

    @CI – You go girl.

  10. Can’t help wondering: WWJBT?

    What would Johnny Bunko think?

  11. Mark Tyler says:

    As an RN Case Manager primarily in elder care, I am already seeing a huge increase in the number of single-by-divorce, or never-married elderly seeking assistance. Many elders are isolated in our society, and the trend is multiplied dramatically when more and more divorced and single or never-married single people grow past 65. Our society has not adjusted well to increased mobility spreading families across the country, and I fear it will not adjust well, in order to meet the needs, of immense numbers of single elderly people. I suggest each of us consider increasing our involvement in the lives of the elderly in our communities by increasing our volunteerism. It may be a drop in the bucket, but with enough drops the bucket will be filled.

  12. Gina says:

    How many of these “never marrieds” are de facto couples ie living with someone?

  13. Joe says:

    Thought provoking posts like this one is the reason I read your blog. Thanks.

  14. Jim W says:

    My wife and I got married in 1980 after living together for 4 years, she was 32 I was 34 and we are still together. If 1/2 the marriages end in divorce maybe waiting until the couple are more mature is good.

  15. Don says:


    This world isn’t exactly favourable to men, for starters, the education system definately favours women. In college education, you’re expected to use nothing but left brain material and memorize, memorize, and memorize. Both men and women work differently, but as a man, one issue I will concede is that women are in fact less forgetful than us.

    Because women end up attaining college degrees, and often us men don’t, the result is higher paying jobs for women due to the perception that a college degree is the end all, be all, to employers.

    It’s not that men don’t understand the value of college, believe me, I know its value in terms of perception amongst society, but after failing college three seperate times despite working my butt off, it just isn’t for me.

    A woman will always look down upon a man making less money than her, or even a man making around the same with less education. Because of this attitude, it’s difficult for us men to seriously commit.

    I wish Daniel Pink’s “Whole New Mind” world were a reality, because I find that would equalize the playing field between men and women. Unfortunately, the left brain is still dominant in education (and for most of the workplace), and education is perceptionally necessary to enter the coveted gates at a professional job.

    Men such as I who were not cut out for college are now relegated to spending 80 hour work weeks, working one low paying job and doing one “no paying entrepreneurial job”, hoping that it will some day cash in. And I’m called lazy all the time according to women, strictly due to low income/eduction. It simply isn’t true though.

  16. Candy says:

    Regarding 20 somethings delaying adulthood. I believe I read within the past two years, Psychiatrist/Psychologists have upped the age adolescents actually reach maturity. For non-ADHD people it is now 23. For those with ADHD, full maturation of the Frontal Cortex is at age 25. I am sure there are variants, but this is “The New Norm.” Maybe this has an effect on those in their 20’s waiting so much longer.

    As everyone has to know by now, it is also extremely expensive to commit to almost anything such as a home, even car purchase. All the uncertainty involved in keeping one’s job has got to come into play, too. Fewer people are being taught in their homes and churches, synagogues, about commitment.

    One thing that really bugs me is when someone says they made a mistake when referring to getting involved in drugs, teenage pregnancy, drinking at too early an age; crime. NO, those are not mistakes: they are CHOICES-good or bad, we are not at the mercy of someone else controlling our brains.

    We are also involved in far too many activities that keep us stressed, in a high state of anxiety, or neuro excitation. It is life changing to truly slow down and take time to really relax. Restorative sleep is what keeps one healthy, energized, more creative. One does not have to attend every event. Focus on your spiritual side for true inspiration.

  17. ND says:

    #15 (Don)

    I am writing this late and don’t know if you’ll check back.

    I think you are making a lot of generalizations about how women see men?

    You say “A woman will always look down upon a man making less money than her, or even a man making around the same with less education.”

    This may be true of some women, but I think many women are grateful for the changes that have allowed us to earn money and understand that this means that it is not realistic to expect, nor do we need, the man to be more of a earner than us. That being said, I think most women do like for a man to have something he does that is valuable in the marketplace and some sense of personal financial responsibility, if for no other reason than that we suspect it is as good for man’s self-esteem as it has been for women’s to be able to earn and have a place in the political economy?

    You also say “And I’m called lazy all the time according to women, strictly due to low income/eduction.” Again, I would be surprised if they called you “lazy.” They may have some concern about how you assemble a family on that working schedule plus the woman’s working schedule, and the need for $ that children especially have, but that’s not about laziness but more about trying to be realistic about what is possible.

    You don’t mention children in your post. I think the primary concern of working women of all educational levels who want to have a children is finding a man who has the capacity to relate to children, enjoys and wants to have them and the willingness to put in the hours of scut work it takes to raise them. Being able to balance this with some kind of paid work/career is the real challenge, and they are looking for men who are cognizant of these issues.

    It is true that there continues to be some romanticizing and fantasizing about male-breadwinner/female-nurturer homes generally in the culture, and I think this is part of the problem; people feel like they are failing if they aren’t doing this, when the reality is that most people don’t do this and don’t want to set things up this way? Most women want some status in the public economy and most men want better relationships with their children and more of an opportunity to be a presence in their lives? These changes have happened over 50 years, but they are changing hundreds of years of conditioning so they take a while to really be absorbed in the culture.

  18. Jen says:

    Dan, I just started reading “Drive” last night, and I’m finding it fascinating. Just introducing myself to your blog now.

    Reading the comments on this post, #15 from Don in particular, got me all fired up, and I’m glad to see that ND responded. I agree with much of what she had to say.

    My boyfriend doesn’t have a college degree (which he’s perfectly comfortable with – he has never attended college, knowing all along it wasn’t for him). He has a good, steady job. He and I make about the same amount of money (I have a 4 year degree). It’s possible that some day I’ll make more money than him, the opposite is just as possible. And I’m confident that we’ll figure that out. We’re partners. I’ve never once thought him to be lazy, nor have any of my girlfriends (or if they did, they had enough good sense to keep it to themselves).

    Don, I wish you’d give women and yourself more credit.

  19. Don says:

    Well, took me a while to get back to this site and work out a response.

    Jen and ND, let’s just say, if you hit a glass ceiling four seperate times in four seperate careers, all because you didn’t have a college degree, your perspectives would be different.

    Fact of the matter is I’m able to enter entry level jobs/careers that normally require a degree, but due to not having a degree, I’m stuck on entry level for life. I can’t have a wife, get a mortgage, and have a family under just 30k a year (that’s where I usually hit the glass ceiling, usually very early, then I’m told I need a degree).

    I’m now 29 years old and have played this entry level dance too many times. Don’t tell me to just go to college, as I said, I failed college three times, it’s not for me. At least I don’t have any debt because employers foolishly paid for college all three times, and then promptly fired me when I failed all three times, after I warned them several times that traditonal college education isn’t the best path towards promotion for myself.

    Obviously I had something of value for three different employers to want to send me off to college via their own dime, so why not just promote me out right into the regular staff? I never understood the need to send your already qualified through experience off to college.

    Most employers have the attitude, “because I went to college, you should too! You just want a shortcut.” I have to laugh at that, college is the short cut, struggling with a life threatening disease, and still managing to run circles around college degree kids in entry level job after entry level job is a much more difficult and longer path.

    Although I have now completely recovered from my illness, it has always left a side effect, my working memory isn’t the greatest, that’s a non-starter for college exams, so college isn’t for me. I wish people would get over it. I’m actually confident in myself and my abilities, I just wish people could see past the lack of ******** college, so I can get paid nicely for what I do best, rather than get exploited because I don’t have a college degree.

    I really can’t stand people who whine how they can’t find a job without a college degree. If you have a college degree, life should be set for you. If the college graduates I’ve worked with only put in half the effort I did, they would already be in upper management.

  20. Rebecca says:

    Don, you should start your own business. Put all that common sense and motivation to work for yourself instead of these companies.

    I’ve been a highly-paid staff-level IT worker for years, and although I have to put in overtime from time to time, my job requires autonomy and provides great flexibility.

    My husband is a restaurant manager, which is not flexible. If he gets sick, another manager has to come it on his day off. If I get sick, the work is just waiting for me when I’m better (for the most part). If our kid gets sick, or course I’m getting him unless I’m in the most important meeting ever.

    I already make more than him, but would gladly have him make less than he does now for a M-F day job schedule (or even stay home), but that’s not his “dream”. I appreciate that he’s hard worker, but I wish the “dream” was more about what he can do and gets out of family than cooking food for other people.

  21. Rebecca says:

    My post sounds kinda harsh, which is interesting. Maybe there’s some pent up frustration on my part. We are a happy family and my husband is a great dad, this is just one of our issues. Every marriage has them, right?

    We are planning on him opening his own breakfast/lunch place. He would love to do pizza or BBQ, but working almost every night for dinner service doesn’t lend well to seeing your school-age kids, well… ever, or going fishing with them on warm summer nights, or taking your wife out for dinner. Believe me, I love BBQ, but pancakes are yummy, too!

    If a person (including me) is not the president or curing cancer, I just don’t understand why it matters so much what someone does to make money – enough money to provide a happy and balanced life for your family.

    Again with the frustration, wow!… ND was right in post #3!

    … deep breath …

  22. Onely says:

    These are some great ideas in this post. I’d like to add: gift registries for single people! Why is it acceptable for people who are engaged or expecting a baby to solicit presents from their friends, but people who pass other life milestones not involving a spouse or baby (say, getting a PhD) don’t have a similar way to “get the stuff they need for their (supposed) new life”?


  23. RB Boren says:

    What will living arrangements of all these single people look like? Will singles face an affordable housing shortage far beyond that experienced by families?

    I have been following housing issues for a number of years and am seeing an increasing incidence of conflict between local zoning/housing ordinances and groups of singles sharing housing.

    A common zoning practice is to limit unrelated dwelling occupancy to a specific number – often three – of unrelated individuals. As the number and proportion of singles increase, more singles are competing in the housing market, existing unrelated occupancy restrictions are gaining more attention and enforcement, plus the regulatory heat in some places is being turned up.

    Watch for this emerging trend toward unrelated occupancy conflicts and increased regulation to continue and gain momentum across the country.