How Are We Going to Serve the Singletons?

by Ronnie Hall, Editor-in-Chief
12/26/2012

One of the fastest growing consumer groups in the United States might surprise you. It's the growing population of single people. They're the never marrieds. Let's call them singletons to keep it simple.

I should have realized this without having to read it, but I didn't. It had to be pointed out to me by John Mauldin, writer of "Outside the Box," a popular investment and economic newsletter. It's one of a dozen or so industry, economic and "big picture" newsletters I receive and read each week. They go across the board. On the financial and economic side they range from "gold bugs" that decry our fiat money system and forecast its eminent collapse to the opposite extreme, Wall Street cheerleaders with their can't-miss investment tips.  Blessedly, Mauldin is short on financial advice and long on economic and socialogical information. Besides that, he's a darn fine writer. He obviously enjoys the process that (unknown to him) makes him my kindred spirit.

Mauldin's Dec. 21 newsletter shared fascinating demographic information from one of his former partners, Gary D. Halbert, founder and president of ProFutures. Halbert wrote about a demographic shift that seems destined to have an ever-larger impact on our society, including politics. It's not difficult to envision its impact on the green industry, too. It's a trend that will grow well into the next decade.

"Our populations are getting older-we all know that. But the reasons why our populations are getting older are not widely understood by many Americans. Those reasons include the falling birth rate, the falling fertility rate, the falling marriage rate and the explosion in singles - people who never marry," wrote Halbert.

He pointed out that the U.S. birth rate fell to a record low of 1.9 children per woman in 2011, below the country's replacement rate. While Halbert, drawing on other expert sources, provided fascinating insights why we're graying and what it means to our society, the information he shared about the singletons surprised me the most.

In a nutshell, this rapidly emerging group now constitutes more than half of the adult population. Between 1910 and 1970 the "ever-married" rate (the percentage of people who marry at some point in their lives) went as high as 98.3 percent and never dipped below 92.8 percent. Since 1970 the number began slipping. By 2000 it stood at only 88.6 percent, and it continues to fall. Today, almost 24 percent of men and 19 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. If you include the prime childbearing years (20 to 34 years of age) the number of never-married men rises to 67 percent and women to 57 percent, wrote Halbert.

Singletons had a significant impact on this past election, he pointed out. Non-married voters (people who are single and have never married, are living with a partner or are divorced) voted for Obama over Romney by a 62-35 margin. This more than offset Romney's advantage among married voters. More than half the voting-age population and 40 percent of those voting were singletons.

So, who are these singletons that will become a larger part of our consumerist society (and green industry customers) as this decade plays out?

Halbert shared that of the 111 million single eligible voters, 53 million are women and 58 million are men. Geographically, they tend to live in cities. In fact, sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who teaches at NYU, predicts that the masses of city-dwelling singles will sort themselves into "urban tribes," based not on kinship but rather on shared interests - the hipsters, the foodies, the greenies and so on. Another sociologist suggests that this influx of singletons could tilt society toward even more consuming and recreating as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.

What the rise of singletons means for the green industry is unclear other than it suggests that the industry will have to find creative ways to connect with this rapidly growing group of consumers.

In the broadest sense it will entail educating this mostly urban and tech-savvy population of singles to the in-the-moment quality-of-life benefits of green industry products and services. . .Obviously, we've got some work to do.