Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am
Singles market seems to have its ebbs, flows
Breakups lead to increase in 20s, divorce in 30s
Rachel Raczka | Washington Post
“Don't worry. They'll all break up soon,” a friend told me when I was single in my mid-20s and everyone I knew – friends, family, acquaintances, strangers – was in a relationship.
And then it happened. Seemingly instantaneously, the 20-somethings who had moved in with their first long-term, post-college partners broke up, moved out and were back on the market, ready to mingle.
It wasn't until half a decade later when I heard a similar notion again: “Don't worry. They'll all get divorced soon.”
They were assuring a late-30-something friend who had grown weary of the thinning dating options before her. And then it happened. First marriages didn't work out. Divorces hinging on first babies (or lack thereof) were settled. Dating at 40 was flush.
In retrospect, I wondered whether there was any quantitative proof of these cycles of singledom. Are there particular ages at which the dating market becomes more active? Or is it like a self-fulfilling prophecy where once you've started seeking out singles with the belief that they exist, they suddenly appear?
It's quite difficult to prove via statistics. “Unfortunately we do not have any data on this topic,” said Olivia O'Hea, a communications assistant at thePew Research Center, when I inquired about the subject.
Researchers take into account the legally married or single status of their subjects, but there isn't a box for “in a relationship” or “seeing someone.” And it most definitely doesn't extend to “dating casually” or “in a long-term thing, but thinking about breaking it off soon when I feel emotionally secure enough in another aspect of my life.”
Social scientist Bella DePaulo, author of “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century,” helped shine some light on data from the Census Bureau regarding the marital status of the masses.
“From the ages of 18-19 all the way up to 65-74, there are more men than women who have never been married,” DePaulo told me via email. “That can be explained in part by the fact that men who marry for the first time are generally older than women who marry for the first time. So for the younger ages especially, there will be a greater percentage of men than women who have never been married. The biggest disparity (greater percentage of never-married men than never-married women) occurs for the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups.”
In some sense, we could view it as a period when a lot of people aren't partnered on paper – yet.
“Among people on the cusp of turning 30 (25-29 year-olds), two-thirds of the men and more than half of the women have never been married,” she wrote.
And while it's difficult for us to estimate when people are truly single based on their unmarried status, Jonathan Soma, a data expert and educator who created an infographic of stats on city-dwelling singles in 2013, says we can still learn something from when the “singles market” will experience an uptick following a period of divorce.
“If you look (at the data), no one is really divorced between 20-24, and then a decent number of people are divorced starting in their 30s. So it's real. It happens,” he said, noting the lack of divorce between 20 to 24 is probably due to a lack of being married to begin with.
The median age of first marriage is 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men. After that, the divorces begin.
“It's a slow burn, between 25 and 50. People just divorce and divorce and divorce,” Soma said. “People are steadily getting divorced as soon as they start getting married, so what happens in the early-, mid-30s is just this shocking introduction of people who have been married but aren't anymore.”
On the flip side, the influx of married folks comes between 25 and 35, providing for a process-of-elimination effect. “Everyone gets married (within those ages) and then stays married across that decade,” Soma said.
However, even when data tells us a dating pool is overflowing, Soma noted that it doesn't take into account whether those people are ready or willing to settle down or even seek companionship.
“A woman I met once told me that men are like avocados. They're not ripe, they're not ripe, they're not ripe. ... Then they're suddenly very ripe, and then they go bad,” said Andrea Silenzi, host of “Why Oh Why,” a podcast that explores dating in a digital age. “For me, dating college grads with careers in the New York City area, that age of ripeness seems to be (about) 30 years old. After you miss that window, it's like sorting through the last avocados in the bin. They're all either too hard to too mushy.”
Silenzi, understanding the difficulty of sorting through a data dump, offered to break down her own 10-minute unscientific experiment on Tinder in which she tallied the ages of prospective suitors. In her pool, 92 of the 163 guys she swiped were between the ages of 30 to 33. (Silenzi is 32 and has her Tinder parameters set to 30 to 40.)
More anecdotally, Silenzi thinks 30 might also be the age when singles feel ready to partner up. “If we're talking about sweeping generalizations, I think it's because of how straight men and straight women approach adulthood,” she said. “I think women graduate from college and expect to discover adulthood – get a couch, get a dog – with a partner. While men want to arrive in adulthood and then take dating seriously.
As Silenzi sees it, the cultural expectation of turning 30 can be a “deadline for adulthood.” And in the hunt for romance, 30 might mean a moment when expectations for both sexes align. “It's the point you have to declare yourself a forever child, or an adult ready for adult decisions. There's a reason why things happen around that age.”
As for what that could mean for dating, the sweet spot of just pre- and post-30 could be where everyone is single and ready to mingle. But by the mid-30s, as Silenzi's experiment showed, there could be a lull once those singles have coupled up. “I always see lots of guys who are 30 or 39, but those middle ages disappear. I think that's when people are going through their first marriages,” she said.
The numbers support this theory as far as dating apps are concerned. For example, IBISWorld says a third of American online daters are between the ages of 25 and 34, making them the largest segment on the market.
Exhausted by the nuances of data and dating, I wondered about my friends who first told me about these alleged magic periods of time when being single would put me in the majority. What proof did they have? What numbers did they rely on?
After consulting the experts, I'm not sure they had any proof. It probably was something that they had been told by others who had experienced the ebbs and flows of feeling like the only single person around.