- We shouldn’t take the Pew report and its 30-point gender gap at face value. Nonetheless, there is a gender gap of at least 10 percentage points Tweet This
- The gender gap in alone-ness among young adults is not anywhere close to 30 percentage points. Tweet This
- New data from Pew suggest that among young adults, one-third of women and an astonishing 63% of men are single. Is that correct? Tweet This
Falling marriage rates. Sex recessions. Deaths of despair. Heck, some of us are even alone in the ivory tower (the title of a paper I published in 2010). Now come new data from Pew, which suggest that among young adults, one-third of women and an astonishing 63% of men are single.
That’s such a remarkable gender difference that further scrutiny is warranted. Happily, the Pew findings aren’t consistent with the latest data from the General Social Survey. The gender gap isn’t nearly as large as the Pew report suggests, there are only modest trends over the past decade, and the data seem prone to various biases.
Figure 1 shows relationship status for young adults over the past 10 years based on the GSS variable POSSLQ, which places respondents in one of four categories:
- Married or partnered but living apart
These lines represent the percentage of survey respondents identifying as being single. There’s no trend over the past decade for men. For women, the percentage saying they’re single has crept upwards. For two of the five waves of data, in 2012 and 2016, there is a big gender gap of 25 percentage points. In the other three years, the gender gap is much smaller, around 10 percentage points. This variability means we shouldn’t take the Pew report and its 30-point gender gap at face value.
Nonetheless, there is a gender gap of at least 10 percentage points. This likely has two explanations.
First, the great majority of GSS respondents are in heterosexual relationships, and men tend to date younger women (the age gap is even greater for same-sex couples). This means that many women in the 18-29 age group are dating men outside the group.
Second, there may be a great deal of uncertainty in what counts as a partner. One way to speak to this is to use a different GSS question, just inquiring about any sexual activity in the past year. Figure 2 shows much lower rates of celibacy, little change over the past 10 years, and minimal gender differences. Obviously, some of the difference between the top and bottom lines can be attributed to hook ups, friends with benefits, and other kinds of non-partner sex. But all of it? Most young people just don’t do that much fooling around outside of relationships, and don’t have that many total lifetime partners. And perhaps more obviously, the POSSLQ question asks about current relationship status, while the questions about sex cover the previous year.
We can’t know for sure with General Social Survey data, of course. Although there is some reason to think the sex data are reasonably accurate, many studies have highlighted the ambiguities around relationship status. Couples don’t always agree about how serious a relationship is, where it’s headed, or whether it’s monogamous. But it seems safe to assume that some of the people reporting sex are also in some sort of relationship, even if they identified themselves as ‘single’ in the POSSLQ question.
One explanation for the sex vs. relationship gap that we can test concerns the tendency for men to date younger women. The average age gap in heterosexual relationships is just over two years. If we redo the POSSLQ analysis with women under 30 but men under 32, it shaves an average of over 4 percentage points off the total number of single men, who are still more likely than the women to be single, but the difference is that much smaller.
Maybe the rest are hooking up with women who erroneously believe they are in a relationship. Or maybe they’re all playing Call of Duty: Warzone while the women are dating each other. It’s impossible to know for sure with the GSS data. What we CAN know is that the story is considerably more muddled than the one-time snapshot offered by the Pew data, and the gender gap in alone-ness among young adults is not anywhere close to 30 percentage points.
Nicholas H. Wolfinger is Professor of Family and Consumer Studies and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Utah. He is the author of Thanks for Nothing: The Economics of Single Motherhood since 1980, coauthored with Matthew McKeever, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.