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Rethinking the Future of Single Households

Recent headlines about millennials finally becoming parents are good examples of how we get things wrong when we focus on the small thing instead of the big thing.

For years, the buzz has been about single households. From 1960 to 2010, the percentage of single households reported by the U.S. Census rose from 13.4% to 26.7%. The future looked as if it belonged to singles, so marketers have scrambled to keep up with this sea change.

Now, though, this focus on singles is being swapped for a focus on millennial parents. Headlines have whipsawed from one extreme to the other. So which is it? Is the future one of single households or one filled with the next generation of married couples with children? The answer requires that we get the demographics right, and we do that with the right focus.

Single households have been on the rise, but the demographics from the Census are more complicated than that. Nothing in these data sets suggest that single lifestyles are going to become the dominant type of living arrangement. In fact, growth has peaked already. The forecast to mid-century is that single households will be 29.1%.

Even more important, demographic data say nothing about lifestyle aspirations, yet the tendency has been to read into these data a fundamental change in the kinds of relationships people want to settle into. But now, as millennials have begun to marry and have children, we are discovering that it was mistaken to presume that a single lifestyle was a lifelong aspirational priority.

What we miss when we look only at data about single households is the big demographic dynamic at work. The reason that single households have grown is that young people are marrying at later ages. In the 1950s and 1960s, the median age at which women married for the first time was 20.3. For men, it was 22.8. In 2014, it was 27.0 for women and 29.3 for men.

Later age of first marriage is a worldwide phenomenon. Globally, in 1970, 21.3% of women between the ages of 15 and 19 were married or in some form of union. In 2010, it was 12.8%. In 2030, it is projected to be 6.9%. Likewise, the percentage of married 20- to 24-year-old women was 62.2% in 1970, but only 46.5% in 2010 and projected to be 34.0% in 2030.

Eventually, though, people often marry. In 1970, by the time women were 25 to 29 years old, nearly all were married, or 85.9%. In 2010, more than 80% were not married until 30 to 34 years of age. In 2030, the projection is that more than 80% won’t be married until 35 to 39 years of age.

In other words, marriage still happens, just later than before. Single lifestyles remain transitional, not aspirational. Marriage remains the lifestyle people want. It’s no surprise, then, that millennials are becoming parents. They crave togetherness, not singleness.

Consider South Korea as an example. Single households are roughly the same percentage there as in the U.S., and marketers have responded with offerings for single people. Yet singles in South Korea want more. The Zipbob app enables single people to find other single people with similar interests with whom they can share a meal. The app connects groups of single people who are looking for togetherness, not singleness.

The typical way in which we look for the next big thing is to scan for small things before they become big things. For decades, single households have been a small thing getting bigger. What we have ignored, though, is the big thing getting smaller, which is early marriage. What’s really at work is a shift in life stage milestones, not a disappearance of life stage milestones. The core benefit people want in their lives remains unchanged. People still want to get married. People still want togetherness. When we shift our attention from the small thing to the big thing, we have the right focus, and that’s the way to get the right answer and to know what’s truly coming down the road.

J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of The Futures Co., part of the Kantar Group of WPP, and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Marketing News.