Single By Choice
THEY COME IN ALL shapes and sizes. They’re young men, who are the fastest-growing percentage of those living on their own. They’re well-educated women, who are refusing to “marry down” to their less-credentialed prospects. They’re gays and lesbians watching their friends in same-sex couples ensconce themselves behind white picket fences. Some, like Bella DePaulo, have taken up their own distinguishing monikers, calling themselves quirkyalones, singulars, onelies, or spinsterellas. Others, though, don’t like to be reminded of the fact that they’re single at all. Young, old, and racially diverse, singles are a cross section of society, which can make marketing to them a sticky wicket.
“With singles spending more than ever, why do so many marketers ignore them?” Adweek recently asked, noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2008 single people accounted for 35 percent of all consumer spending, and made $2.2 trillion worth of purchases, a 30 percent increase from five years earlier. But while they can sell Dentyne gum or Axe body spray as a way to help them find a mate, mainstream companies still steer clear of focusing on singles for fear of alienating them. That’s the problem that Stephanie Bostic, 28, faced this year when she began marketing One Bowl, her cookbook of simple recipes for single people. A health policy researcher with a master’s degree in nutrition from Tufts, Bostic wrote and self-published her book after becoming frustrated by cookbooks that assumed single chefs could make little more than ramen. Sipping tea in a small Japanese café in Brookline, she explains how, despite the fact that her book promotes a healthy single lifestyle, she found herself entangled in the fraught emotional subconscious of her customers. One woman contemplated buying the book for her best friend, who had just gone through a breakup, but didn’t want to reopen the wound. “I’ve realized the danger of marketing something to single people is that they’ll get offended,” she says. “People buying the book are reluctant to admit that they’re single, even though I’m single and selling it to them and happy about it.”
Right now, Bostic lives by herself in a studio apartment in Jamaica Plain. She isn’t dating and doesn’t feel like she needs marriage to have a fulfilling life. She’s also already determined that she doesn’t want children. “I like kids, but I don’t feel like I need my own,” she says. “I’m honestly really happy being the village.”
But what frustrates Bostic is the way public policy has been designed to benefit couples. In 1948, the U.S. tax code was rewritten to benefit married couples with one primary earner, putting them into a lower tax bracket. Which meant that a man who supported a nonworking wife paid only half the taxes of a single man making the same amount. It was one of the first policies set up by our government to promote marriage. Today, there are more than 1,100 federal provisions that provide benefits and protections exclusively to couples. Bostic enumerates the challenges she’ll face if she remains unmarried: Setting up a healthcare proxy is more difficult when you don’t have a partner, and she won’t be able to designate a beneficiary for her Social Security or 401(k) plan. “It’s an issue of equity,” she says.
If Bella DePaulo had her way, employers would have to institute a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding domestic status. But access to benefits isn’t the only workplace challenge singles face. DePaulo’s research with Boston College’s Sloan Work and Family Research Network has found that workers who are married are more likely to be described as “mature, stable, honest, happy, kind, and loving.” Singles, on the other hand, are generally regarded as “immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and ugly.” Another study that looked at employees younger than 30 found one in five felt stigmatized for being single, and 62 percent were able to provide examples of their supervisors treating them differently from their coworkers with families. “When we expect single people to take vacation dates that no one else wants, or the travel that nobody wants,” DePaulo says, “you imply that whatever is going on in their life isn’t as important as what’s going on in the lives of people who are married with kids.”