Looking Ahead, Unwed
The women interviewed for this story don't deny that there were trade-offs to their decision, as there are, of course, for married people. Partnering, for one, still eases the economic burdens of housing and planning for retirement. "My friends who are married, they're a little bit better off, they have a spouse to depend on financially—and don't think I don't think about that," Cecilia Smith says. Jane Scandurra is not fretting about her financial security, but "I do worry about who will take care of me when I'm older," she says. "Not because I don't have close friends or family, but I'm just not one to ask for help. Perhaps that's part of the independence, of relying on myself for so long. I may have to change that thinking now that I've turned 50."
Ironically, one of the primary factors that has made it easier for women to stay single—economic independence—may also make us less skittish about taking a trip down the aisle. Men in their twenties, thirties, and even early forties "are more accepting of women who are independent, and those men are doing much more housework and child care than they used to," Coontz says. So in the years to come, she theorizes, women may spend their earlier years establishing themselves, and then decide later, once they have financial independence—and therefore the security to walk away—that they're "willing to risk marriage." The wild card is the current economic situation: In a severe recession like this one, fewer people get divorced (it's hard to split when you can't sell the house), but Coontz says they also tend to marry later, and less often. Ultimately, she believes, there will be a rise in lifelong singleness, but the increase will be somewhat offset by increasing numbers of women marrying like-minded partners when they're in their forties and fifties. The belief that women are the equals of men (another factor enabling them to remain single longer) may be what makes it possible for them to marry in greater numbers later on, and happily.
Marriage isn't easy, but it is still, for the most part, the social norm—which means remaining single will always have its own unique challenges, no matter how far women have come or will eventually go. The next generations who make that choice may take heart in thinking about how many women older than they, with fewer role models, have chosen that path and found great pride and pleasure. "I give myself a lot of credit," Pearlstein says. She didn't know if she'd find happiness living on her own, but "I was willing to take the chance," she says. "Getting married just for the sake of getting married—that was something I could never do."
Susan Dominus writes the column "Big City" for the New York Times.
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