As we approach Valentine’s Day, consider that our collective relationship status has been shifting — but are organizational cultures and policies changing to reflect the rise in single people?
In 1970, only 28% of adults were not married, but nearly half (45%) are unmarried now. Millennials, between the ages of 18-34, are staying single for longer and they aren’t alone - only a quarter of 40-54 year olds were single in 1990 and a third were in 2019.
Relationships status also holds intersectionality and income outcomes. Men are more likely to be single, as well as to be looking for a partner. Black people, and especially black women (62%), are more likely to be single whereas Asian people (29%) are the least likely to be single, followed by whites and hispanics.
Single People Offer Advantages to the Workplace
Various research suggests that single people without children bring particular benefits to your teams, and note: it’s not by being the exploited workhorses of the office.
They are better at standing by their own opinions, even in the headwinds of groupthink. Lifelong single people are more likely to be constantly learning and growing, and it’s also suggested they are in touch with who they are, bring a less cluttered mind to the workplace and have more openness to whatever comes.
People who stay single also value meaningful work more, so they are more often there for more than the paycheck. It’s a myth that single people are more lonely or isolated, as they tend to have good happiness levels and those who persist in being single from 40-85 years show increasing fulfillment in their lives, more so than partnered counterparts.
The Unspoken Assumption about Single Lives
Dr Bella De Paulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After asserts that single workers are treated differently to married colleagues: “The stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people is pervasive…Unlike more familiar varieties of prejudice and discrimination such as racism or sexism, singlism slips by mostly unnoticed and unchallenged.”
At Pulsely, we analyze the patterns of inclusion in workplaces across different demographic segments. It is not uncommon that on the path to leadership, we see the impact of affinity bias, or a tendency for favoring individuals who are similar to ourselves. Many of our clients choose to look at inclusion by marital status and are seeing significant differences that need to be addressed. It can be eye-opening when those patterns suggest that single employees are not getting the same level of career support, access to influential networks, or have lower quality relationships with their managers.
With people working more hours than ever, the 24/7 work and availability culture is often criticized for not being family-friendly and for penalizing mothers who have children- which is evident and true, as numerous studies have shown.
But the unspoken assumption is the 24/7 work week is agreeable for single people without children. The perception is often that single people have no important priorities outside of work. On the contrary, single people are more invested in maintaining quality relationships with a wider breadth of community connections and invest more in their parents. They volunteer and contribute more to the community than married people and participate more in public activities. Single people often have chosen family for which quality time together matters or they savor their solitude away from work.
Like their partnered colleagues, single workers have non-work obligations and personal priorities that are often overlooked or undervalued by the workplace.
Exclusion Looks Like: Higher Work Expectations
The perception has become normalized that single employees do not have obligations and can stay later, travel on weekends, take up holiday shifts, be willing to relocate and schedule vacation around the needs of married colleagues. Also, while parents may often need to make a special request for a family need, it’s less socially acceptable for single people to request time off to handle personal matters.
While single people tend to support family-friendly policies that make the workplace work better for everyone, they also can feel undervalued and trivialized if their non-work lives, in which they do not have a partner with which to share responsibilities, are not given equal validation.
Research has found that single workers feel married workers receive more flexibility in hours and duties, as well as more benefits. 62% of single workers felt treated differently from married co-workers with children and 30% felt that the difference in work expectations was “reinforcing the message that married workers’ lives are more important than the lives of singles.”
Work-life balance is not only about work-family balance, yet solo-living employees feel their organizations expect them to spend more of their lives at work.
Exclusion Looks Like: Lower Pay and Less Benefits
It’s not only that single people are expected to work more, but they are paid less for it. Being single means being penalized when it comes to taxes, housing, healthcare and more - differences that can add up to a half million or million dollars over a lifetime.
The “marriage wage premium” varies from 4.5% to 32.6% - and one factor is that partners have the stability of each other’s income when looking for more work. Even married twins made 26% more than their single twin. In Germany, married individuals tend to feel best paid while never-married people feel least paid.
Meanwhile, in countries like the US, single workers are excluded from over 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect married people, do not get the discount advantages on matters from insurance to travel to health club memberships, are taxed significantly more than married couples, and get less flexibility and security from Social Security.
Building a Culture that Embraces All Relationship Statuses
Studies show that practices such as job-sharing, flexible work and child care that help to build family oriented workplaces have improved employee retention, productivity and attitudes about work among employees with families. But what do companies need to consider so that single employees feel engaged, valued, supported with opportunities to thrive?
Research that assessed five dimensions of single friendly culture - social inclusion, equal work opportunities, equal access to benefits, equal respect for non-work life and equal work expectations - found that employees with families perceived more equity across most of these facets than their single peers. To create a culture where single people feel included, the work-life balance discussion needs to include everyone and touch on each of these five dimensions.
Here are some ideas to create more equitable workplace for any relationship status:
- Make flexible working schemes and job-share available to all, regardless of family status
- Stop assuming single employees should be willing to stay behind late or take on extra work
- Hold the same work output standards for all employees and reward “above and beyond” performance
- Do not assign extra hours, weekend work and business travel disproportionately to single employees
- Create work assignments without regard to family or marital status, using only job-relevant criteria and past performance
- Allow all employees to request time off or away for personal matters and do not ask employees to qualify their requests
- Recognize that caretaking happens for more than children and spouses
- Recognize relocation is a personal decision for everyone
- Use data to analyze the impact of marital status on career opportunities and advancement
- Limit in-office celebrations to experiences that exist for all people (eg birthdays) or are strictly work-related
- Take relationship status out of the subjective equation of salaries
- Balance family-friendly policies (college tuition, spouse health care plans) with single-friendly policies (eg health coverage for unmarried partners, subsidies for fitness centers and education opportunities, pet care)
- Establish a good social working climate that supports all lifestyles
The workforce is increasingly single, and the more all of your employees feel supported rather than “singled out”, the more your organization will be poised to thrive.