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Do the 44% of Irish people who are single in their 30s suffer stigma?

Times have moved on from research in the 1990s which found society less understanding.

Image: Shutterstock/Blazej Lyjak

This article is part of our Change Generation project, supported by KBC. To read more click here.

IN THE 2011 CENSUS, 44% of people in the 30-39 age bracket classed themselves as single.

The split was almost half and half between men and women, slightly weighted towards men at 54%.

The data show that between the ages of 30 and 39 the number of people ticking the ‘single’ box on the census form drops off quickly every year, with the rate slowing down after the age of 40.

Being single or as-yet-unmarried in your 30s has long been presented as some sort of doomsday situation (particularly for women) in popular culture, but with more people getting married later in life or not getting married at all, things are changing.

The equality effect

In Ireland, the census shows there was a 15% increase in the number of people over the age of 15 reporting as single between 2002 and 2011.

Research carried out in the 1990s on ”always single” women concluded that that they faced “extensive stigma” from friends, family and strangers.

But the author of that study, Dr Anne Byrne, told theJournal.ie that some things have changed since then and there is more acceptance in Irish society for those living as single women and men.

Opportunities for education, paid work and economic independence, improved reproductive control, combined with the ideological support of the women’s movement for sexual and economic equality, have benefited all women. The seismic shift in women’s lives in Ireland from the 1960s onwards, is part of the reason for the changes in attitudes to single women and men.

There is still, however, “a strong convention, social preference and expectation in society to be ‘coupled’ or ‘in a relationship’ despite our advocacy of equality for all persons,” she says.

The role of gender 

Unmarried and in her 30s, Dr Lisa Moran from NUI Galway says she is not sure whether being single at this age is normalised yet and she believes, “there is a definite insider/outsider distinction at play.”

Dr Moran told theJournal.ie that it is different for men and women, and where you live is another factor.

I think there’s far more pressure on women to be married by a certain age than on men. And I also think the rural/urban divide plays a huge role too. So I think the issue is more complex than it appears on the surface.

However, Dr Byrne says both men and women face similar pressures to conform to societal customs:

Young men are subject to the same kind of peer pressures as young women concerning their single status but have greater autonomy to ‘be themselves’. It is the force of convention that is most at work here – being ‘different’ to the peer group is still not tolerated.

Economic factors

Dr Bernadine Brady, from the School of Political Science & Sociology at NUI Galway, says economic factors are also at play.

She told theJournal.ie that while some younger people may be single by choice, others are delaying marriage and babies because they cannot afford them until later in life.

With increasingly precarious employment, short-term contracts, having to spend longer in education, etc., many young people would be unable to afford to get married, buy a house, have a baby, etc – thus delaying these things is a rational choice that has been caused by the underlying economic changes.

Singles are happier than married couples?

In the United States, there are more single people than ever before, with 50.2% of those aged 16 and over identifying as such in 2014, compared to 37.4% in 1976.

Social psychologist Dr Bella DePaulo addressed this year’s American Psychological Association annual convention, where she spoke about the positives of staying single:

The preoccupation with the perils of loneliness can obscure the profound benefits of solitude. It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life — one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful.

DePaulo refutes the notion that single people lack meaningful relationships and says studies have shown that they have stronger relationships with family members, friends and co-workers, while married couples become insular.

While economic factors such as the challenges of finding a well-paid job before marrying are often cited as reasons for remaining single, DePaulo argues that increasing numbers of people are staying unattached because they want to.

“Living single allows them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful life,” she says.

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