What Single Women Really Want

What do single women really want? Suppose you were to recruit hundreds of them, across the United States, and ask them to name the #1 priority in their life. What do you think they would say?

One more thing, before you answer. Set aside single women in their 20s. Youthful 20-something brides are a thing of the past. In more than a century of keeping tabs on the age at which women first get married (of those who do marry), the Census Bureau has found that first-time brides have never been older than they are now – on the average, 27.4. Men are even older, on the cusp of turning 30 (29.5 to be exact).

Getting married, then, is unlikely to be at the top of the list of life priorities for twenty-something single women. But what about women between the ages of 30 and 45? Women who have always been single and have no kids. What do you think their #1 priority is?

That was the question – among many others – posed by the marketing research company, Hill Holiday’s Origin, together with Match Media Group. More than 1,2000 people were surveyed, including lifelong single men with no children and married women, in addition to the single women.

The actual priorities of single women

The #1 priority of the single women was living on their own. Nearly half (44%) said that’s what mattered most to them.

Named next most often as their #1 priority was establishing a career. About a third of the single women (34%) prioritized their career over everything else.

The third most popular #1 priority of single women was financial security. More than a quarter of the women (27%) said that financial security mattered most.

Hey, wait – where’s marriage? Aren’t single women supposed to be obsessed with getting married? That’s what advertisements, movies, and TV shows proclaim. Romantic plots are dropped mindlessly into scripts, as if the greatest talents of Hollywood are stumped when it comes to imagining any other life for a single woman. This year’s season-ending episode of Grey’s Anatomy, from the much lauded Shondaland juggernaut, was seeded with not one, not two, but three weddings.

In fact, the research I am describing was motivated in large part by a concern that popular culture was missing the mark when it comes to single women. The single women who were surveyed agreed: 56% said they were not fairly represented on TV or in movies, and 44% said they were not fairly represented in advertisements.

In the survey, only 20% of the single women said that getting married was their #1 priority. That puts it in fourth place, after living on their own, establishing a career, and financial security.

What about having kids? Only 8% of the single women described that goal as their #1 priority. More of them (12%) said that getting promoted at work was their most important priority. Our cultural conversations are filled with angst about the “baby, maybe” question. Enough brilliant writers have grappled with the issue to fill an anthology on the topic. The novel Motherhood has inspired headlines such as “Should Sheila Heti have a baby?” and “Sheila Heti wrestles with a big decision in Motherhood.” In this survey, though, the typical response seems to be a shrug.

The researchers approached the matter of priorities a second way, asking participants, “Ten years from now, what are your personal priorities?” Again, marriage was not on the top of the list. The single women consistently rated traveling as more important.

How single women see themselves

Do you think the themes of Fatal Attraction are so 1987? Aren’t we past the demented, obsessed single woman destroying the perfect life of the beautiful married man and his put-upon blameless wife? If you think so, then you have not seen Obsessed. The single woman, played by Ali Larter, doesn’t boil anyone’s pet bunny, but she terrorizes poor Idris Elba and Beyonce in just about every other imaginable way.

Single people do not fare well in studies of stereotyping and singlism, perhaps in part because of the ways they are portrayed in popular culture. For example, when my colleagues and I asked men and women of all marital statuses to say what comes to mind when they think of single people, here are the characteristics they mentioned most often:

36% independent

21     sociable, friendly, fun

17     lonely

11     looking for a partner

 9     shy

 9     flirtatious

 8     unhappy

In the current survey, the single women were shown a list of attributes and asked to check the ones they associated with always-single women with no kids between the ages of 30 and 45. (Because they were given a list, the percentages are likely to be higher than in my study, in which people had to generate the characteristics on their own.)

Here are the characteristics single women most often actually ascribe to people like them:

77% independent

54    confident

49    responsible

43    ambitious

42    strong-minded

32    adventurous

They were given the opportunity to endorse qualities such as immature, insecure, dependent, and quick to anger, but mostly declined to do so. Single women are not buying the negative stereotypes that others are trying to sell them.

They do, though, know what they are up against. More than half (57%) agree that “there’s an expectation from others that you can’t be happy in your 30s or 40s if you’re single.”

Actually, it is worse than that. Several studies have shown that single people who say that they like being single are judged more harshly than single people who say they want to be coupled. Other people insist that the single people who like their single lives are less happy than the single people who don’t like their single lives. It is as if they are saying to the happy single people, “oh, you are just saying you are happy; you don’t really mean it.” They also express more anger toward the single people who are not complaining about their single lives.

This is what happens when Match.com asks about something other than dating and mating

Back in 2011, Match.com also funded a study of single people. In one of the e-mails I received, it was described as “the most comprehensive, holistic study of singles in America to date.” I asked to see the questions and discovered that this “comprehensive” study of single life included 128 questions across 25 pages, and 1 of them – just one! – was about something other than dating, mating, or procreating. Because it was a Match.com study, maybe that should not have been a surprise. Still, a survey with such a stunningly stunted view of what it means to live single should never be touted as “comprehensive.” Take a look at my detailed critique, if you are interested. I’m still proud of it, all these years later.

When researchers finally gave single women a chance to describe what matters to them, without pre-judging their answers, they found that marriage wasn’t so important after all. Living on their own, establishing a career, financial security, and even traveling were higher priorities. Traveling was twice as important as having kids, and establishing a career was named as a #1 priority more than four times as often as having kids.

The 2018 report concluded that single women “are not sitting around waiting for Mr. Right.” As I could have told them a long time ago, many single women (and men) are living their single lives fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.

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