As relationships, living arrangements and family life continue to evolve for American adults, a rising share are not living with a romantic partner. A new Pew Research Center analysis of census data finds that in 2019, roughly four-in-ten adults ages 25 to 54 (38%) were unpartnered – that is, neither married nor living with a partner.1 This share is up sharply from 29% in 1990.2 Men are now more likely than women to be unpartnered, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
The growth in the single population is driven mainly by the decline in marriage among adults who are at prime working age. At the same time, there has been a rise in the share who are cohabiting, but it hasn’t been enough to offset the drop in marriage – hence the overall decline in partnership. While the unpartnered population includes some adults who were previously married (those who are separated, divorced or widowed), all of the growth in the unpartnered population since 1990 has come from a rise in the number who have never been married.
This trend has broad societal implications, as does the growing gap in well-being between partnered and unpartnered adults. Looking across a range of measures of economic and social status, unpartnered adults generally have different – often worse – outcomes than those who are married or cohabiting. This pattern is apparent among both men and women. Unpartnered adults have lower earnings, on average, than partnered adults and are less likely to be employed or economically independent. They also have lower educational attainment and are more likely to live with their parents. Other research suggests that married and cohabiting adults fare better than those who are unpartnered when it comes to some health outcomes.
The gaps in economic outcomes between unpartnered and partnered adults have widened since 1990. Among men, the gaps are widening because unpartnered men are faring worse than they were in 1990. Among women, however, these gaps have gotten wider because partnered women are faring substantially better than in 1990.
The growing gap in economic success between partnered and unpartnered adults may have consequences for single men who would like to eventually find a partner. In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 71% of U.S. adults said being able to support a family financially is very important for a man to be a good spouse or partner. Similar shares of men and women said this. In contrast, 32% of adults – and just 25% of men – said this is very important for a woman to be a good spouse or partner.
A growing share of adults are unpartnered
Americans’ marital and living arrangements have changed considerably over the past 30 years. The share of adults ages 25 to 54 who are currently married fell from 67% in 1990 to 53% in 2019, while the share cohabiting more than doubled over that same period (from 4% in 1990 to 9% in 2019).3 The share who have never been married has also grown – from 17% to 33%. All of this churn has resulted in a significant increase in the share who are unpartnered.
The growth in unpartnered adults has been sharper among men than women. In 1990, men and women ages 25 to 54 were equally likely to be unpartnered (29% of each group). By 2019, 39% of men were unpartnered, compared with 36% of women.
In terms of their demographic characteristics, prime-working-age single adults are somewhat younger than their counterparts who are married or living with a partner. Among adults ages 25 to 54, the median age of those who are unpartnered was 36 in 2019; this compares with 40 among partnered adults.
Some may assume that, as the median age of first marriage continues to rise, unpartnered adults are merely lagging behind rather than foregoing partnership altogether. That might not be the case. Among adults ages 40 to 54, there has been a significant increase in the share who are unpartnered from 1990 (24%) to now (31% in 2019).
There are differences by race and ethnicity in the share of prime-working-age adults who are partnered and unpartnered. Among those ages 25 to 54, 59% of Black adults were unpartnered in 2019. This is higher than the shares among Hispanic (38%), White (33%) and Asian (29%) adults. For most racial and ethnic groups, men are more likely than women to be unpartnered. The exception is among Black adults, where women (62%) are more likely to be unpartnered than men (55%).
Partnership status also differs by nativity. Foreign-born adults at prime working age were less likely (28%) to be unpartnered in 2019 than their native-born peers (40%). This pattern is apparent among adults of each major racial or ethnic origin. For example, 29% of foreign-born Hispanic adults were single, compared with 46% of native-born Hispanic adults. Some of this difference in partnership status may reflect that foreign-born prime-working-age adults are older than their native-born counterparts.