The power of 1
About one-fourth of Americans now live alone. As their numbers grow, these singles are becoming a significant cultural and economic force.
As Laura Peet put the finishing touches on plans for a vacation in Italy this month, her anticipation ran high. For years she had dreamed of visiting Tuscany, Rome, and the Cinque Terra. Now the trip was at hand, with just one thing missing: someone to share it with her.
"I was holding out on Italy as a honeymoon spot," says Ms. Peet, a marketing consultant in New York. "That hasn't happened yet, so I'm going for my birthday."
Score one for independence and pragmatism, the hallmarks of 21st-century singlehood. In numbers and attitudes, people like Peet are creating a demographic revolution that is slowly and quietly reshaping the social, cultural, and economic landscape.
In 1940, less than 8 percent of Americans lived alone. Today that proportion has more than tripled, reaching nearly 26 percent. Singles number 86 million, according to the Census Bureau, and virtually half of all households are now headed by unmarried adults.
Signs of this demographic revolution, this kingdom of singledom, appear everywhere, including Capitol Hill.
Last month the Census Bureau reported that 132 members of the House of Representatives have districts in which the majority of households are headed by unmarried adults.
In Hollywood, television programs feature singles game shows, reality shows, sitcoms, and hits such as "Sex and the City."
Off-screen, whole forests are being felled to print a burgeoning genre of books geared to singles, primarily women. Nonfiction self-help books, written in breezy, upbeat tones, serve as cheerleaders for singlehood and advice-givers on how to find a marriage partner.
A category of fiction dubbed Chick Lit spans everything from Bridget Jones to titles such as "Pushing 30." Harlequin Books publishes a special imprint called Red Dress Ink, billed as "stories that reflect the lifestyles of today's urban, single woman."
In June, a panel at Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago discussed "The Fiction of Singledom." The well-attended event attracted a predominantly female audience, says panelist Steve Almond of Somerville, Mass., whose writings include short stories about singles.
Events like this, together with books for singles, dating services and websites, personals ads, and five-minute dating sessions, add up to big business, so sprawling that it cannot be quantified. Mr. Almond calls it the "commercialization of romantic connections."
To help the unattached make connections, even museums are getting into the act. As one example, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts holds a monthly gathering called First Friday, appealing to singles who want more cultured, upscale places to mingle than clubs and bars.
Singles with discretionary time to work out at the gym feed a thriving fitness culture. Travel agencies and special tour groups are also capitalizing on this market. Many travelers, like Peet, go alone. Within the United States, singles take 27 percent of all trips, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.
In supermarkets, the giant economy size still exists, but sharing shelf space with it is a newer invention: single- serving sizes. Mike Deagle of the Grocery Manufacturers of America calls it a "significant trend," although no statistics yet track those changes.
Even restaurants are finding ways to woo the growing number of singles who eat out. Marya Charles Alexander of Carlsbad, Calif., publishes an online newsletter, SoloDining.com, with a dual purpose. It urges restaurants to make solo diners feel welcome - no fair banishing them to Siberia, next to the swinging kitchen door. And it encourages customers eating alone to find pleasure in the experience.
"I do think 9/11 has definitely affected the way singles feel about their quality of life," Ms. Alexander says. "They're going to enjoy right now. More and more of them are saying, 'I am living my life today. I'm not going to be staying home, not going to be shackled by whatever people think about me eating out by myself.' "
A scattering of restaurants offer communal tables, enabling those arriving alone to share conversation. As Alexander notes, "Times are not as rosy as they were in the past for restaurateurs. It makes good business sense to cater to these people who are hungry and looking for an invitation to eat out."
For those setting a table for one at home, other help exists. Retirement communities are holding classes with cheerful titles such as "Cooking for One Can Be Fun," and adult education programs offer Cooking 101, geared to those living alone.
Singles are also nesting in record numbers. Traditionally, one-third of home buyers are single, with women buying houses at double the rate of men, according to the National Association of Realtors. Peet recently bought a house in rural Connecticut, becoming one of the 6 percent of single women who own second homes. In 2001, 10 percent of second homes were bought by single women and 10 percent by single men. All these new households in turn are helping to feather the nests of businesses that sell home furnishings, kitchenware, and lawn equipment.
Unmarried Americans are also changing the face of organized religion. Because younger singles often do not attend regularly, some churches and temples are creating special services to attract them. At Temple Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., a monthly Shabbat service and dinner on Friday evening targets the generation between 22 and 32. And St. Paul's Cathedral (Episcopal) in Boston holds a Sunday evening gathering for those in their 20s and 30s.
"The institutional church is starting to awaken to the fact that churches tend to be almost reflexively family- oriented," says the Very Rev. John P. Streit, dean of the cathedral. "That can be unintentionally exclusive to people who aren't married and don't have kids. The church is starting to pay more attention and be more careful about its language, the way it structures its programs, and who it imagines is sitting in the pews."
In the secular world, that kind of attention to singles is crucial as well. "We've got disposable income," Peet says, using as an example a friend who just bought herself diamond earrings. Other unmarried women are treating themselves to a "right-hand ring," complete with diamonds.
Still, solo consumers may represent an untapped market. "I've been waiting 15 years for advertisers to catch on that single people are important," says Joan Allen, author of "Celebrating Single and Getting Love Right."
Marcia Stein, who lives alone in Washington, D.C., offers another example of singles' power at the cash register - power that businesses ignore at their peril. She says, "When I go to the grocery store, there are huge portions in the meat department. I will often say, 'Will you split this?' Some places will, some places won't. Where they won't, why should I become a customer?"
Not all singles enjoy the luxury of plentiful disposable income, of course. "Living alone is not economically feasible a lot of times," says Sandi Garcia, a 20-something who handles marketing for the Wyoming Business Council in Cheyenne. "It definitely helps to have a double income. It is so expensive to live alone."
As the ranks of singles grow, so does the recognition that dating is not the exclusive province of the young. Noting that there are more older singles than at any time in the nation's history, AARP last month launched online dating services for those between 40 and 69.
This age group represents a lucrative market for other businesses as well. Alexander, who is launching a website of travel resources called SoloTravelPortal. com, says, "Many travel organizations are waking up to the fact that there are mature solos who are saying, 'It's time for me to get out and see all the things I had planned on doing.' It's a group of people who are just beginning to get their sea legs. They're casting out a lot of the societal shackles singles have been living under."
Although singles now have the power to change some things, the agenda is far from finished. Ms. Allen finds that "enormous stigmas" against single men and women still exist. These include inconsistencies in the law and subtle biases in the workplace.
Research by Unmarried America, a group promoting equal rights for unmarried workers, consumers, and taxpayers, finds that single employees generally make less money than married workers, have a higher unemployment rate, and receive less compensation for benefits. Unmarried employees make up more than 42 percent of the nation's workforce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
"Having been single most of my professional career, there have been times when I've felt I was carrying the weight of people with families," Peet says. "And I understand the need for children and parents to have tax breaks, but on the other hand, I don't want to be penalized because I don't have children."
She offers another example of inequities. "When I was married, my car insurance was a certain level, and when I got divorced it went up. Married people were regarded as more responsible. Clearly that needs to change."
What will it take to create a more solo-friendly world?
Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America in Glendale, Calif., wants political parties to recognize singles. They make up 35 percent of voters, giving them potential power in the polling booth.
Even so, Mr. Coleman says, "It's a tough sell. Democrats seem to take the single vote for granted. Republicans are traditionally, understandably more family, family, family." He also sees the need for a singles-friendly workplace campaign to counterbalance popular work-family initiatives. At the same time, he emphasizes that his organization is not antifamily.
Whatever unfinished business remains, Allen and Coleman, among others, see strength and inevitable progress in numbers. "I do think there's a new evolution going on," Allen says. "Eventually the stigmas will subside."
Adds Coleman, "Even though single people are not organized politically, the sheer numbers, the weight of those numbers is eventually going to force change, slowly."