Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard draws on his timely forthcoming book project on the sharp decline in U.S. fertility levels in a new article on the rise of the unmarried and the never-married as a political constituency. He begins by recounting the familiar story of the relative rise of the Latino share of the population and the electorate, and then pivots to the rise of a much larger constituency that has gone largely unexamined:
Between 1910 and 1970, the “ever-married rate”—that is, the percentage of people who marry at some point in their lives—went as high as 98.3 percent and never dipped below 92.8 percent. Beginning in 1970, the ever-married number began a gradual decline so that by 2000 it stood at 88.6 percent.
Today, the numbers are more striking: 23.8 percent of men, and 19 percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. Tick back a cohort to the people between 20 and 34—the prime-childbearing years—and the numbers are even more startling: 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in that group have never been married. When you total it all up, over half of the voting-age population in America—and 40 percent of the people who actually showed up to vote this time around—are single.
Last then explains that the unmarried are disproportionately urban, and that as “urban density increases, marriage rates (and childbearing rates) fall in nearly a straight line.” One could see this as a testament to the relative advantages of urban life. Though living alone is in some respects more challenging than living in a married couple, as marriage facilitates the accumulation of assets and creates opportunities for enriching shared experiences, the cultural novelty and economic opportunities created by density can make these challenges more bearable, and for some people at least can make single life seem definitively superior to married life at the margin. At the same time, dense cities pose tremendous obstacles to child-rearing, particularly dense cities in which the cost of living is high relative to wages.
Last provides some demographic context:
Of the 111 million single eligible voters, 53 million are women and 58 million are men. Only 5.7 million of these women are Hispanic and 9.7 million are African American. Nearly three-quarters of all single women are white.
And then he provides political context:
Singles broke decisively for Obama. Though his margins with them were lower than they were in 2008, he still won them handily: Obama was +16 among single men and +36 with single women. But the real news wasn’t how singles broke—it was that their share of the total vote increased by a whopping 6 percentage points. To put this in some perspective, the wave of Hispanic voters we’ve heard so much about increased its share of the total vote from 2008 to 2012 by a single point, roughly 1.27 million voters. Meanwhile, that 6 percentage point increase meant 7.6 million more single voters than in 2008. They provided Obama with a margin of 2.9 million votes, about two-thirds of his margin of victory. Back in 2010, Teixera noted that 47 percent of all women are now unmarried, up from 38 percent in 1970. “Their current size in the voter pool—more than a quarter of eligible voters—is nearly the size of white evangelical Protestants, who are perhaps the GOP’s largest base group,” he writes. “And since the current growth rate of the population of unmarried women is relatively high (double that of married women), the proportion of unmarried women in the voting pool should continue to increase.” In the medium run, he’s almost certainly correct.
As Last would happily acknowledge, the unmarried are a tremendously diverse group. Yet it is a group that is in many respects more vulnerable, economically but also emotionally, than married Americans. While many singles are part of robust social networks, both kin-based and non-kin-based, it seems reasonable to assume that singles tend to be somewhat more socially isolated than married individuals, which means that they are likely to have a somewhat more difficult time weathering economic and social disruptions.
The entire article is well worth your time, and it offers comparative perspective — East Asia’s demographic transformation is likely to have enormous consequences, for example — and reflections on the likely social implications of the decline of marriage.