The frustrations that single people encounter in a largely coupled-up world are well established. Less well-known—but just as pervasive—are the challenges faced by single people at the office.
The expectation that single people clock longer hours than their paired-up counterparts is one common complaint. “Lots of people I interviewed complained that their managers presumed they had extra time to stay at the office or take on extra projects because they don’t have family at home,” Eric Klinenberg, author of the 2013 book Going Solo, told The Atlantic last month.
And in some cases, being single can affect a person’s job prospects. A recent Swiss study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that employers were more likely to offer job interviews to married men than to single men, even when their qualifications were otherwise the same. (It’s common to include marital status on resumes in Switzerland.)
Other singles simply feel marginalized in work cultures that assume their employees will be coupled up. “We’re going to have a team holiday party this year,” says communications executive Aimee Colton, “and it’s annoying because everyone brings their partner or spouse, and then I feel like I’m the 15th wheel.”
Why more people are staying single
These kinds of cultural expectations lag reality. Data show that singles make up an increasingly large portion of the adult population in the US. Four in 10 adults between the ages of 25 and 54 are single, up from 29% in 1990, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. (The survey defines single as being neither married nor living with a partner.)
In England and Wales, the share of the population that’s never been married or in a domestic partnership is now at 35%, compared with 30% in 2002, according to the Office of National Statistics. There, singledom has become more common across all age groups.
The numbers are growing in Asia, too. Among South Koreans in their 30s, 43% are unmarried, up from 36% in 2015. Among Japanese people between the ages of 18 and 39, the share of single women grew from 27% in 1992 to 41% in 2015. The share of single men increased from 40% in 1992 to 51% in 2015.
The reasons for the uptick are manifold. The age at which people get married is steadily increasing in many countries as people try to gain financial security and establish themselves in their careers. And economic instability, as well as educational disparities between men and women, may be making it harder for some people to find partners.
Bella DePaulo, the author of the book Singled Out, argues “more people than ever before want to be single.” She points to a 2020 survey from Pew Research Center that found half of single Americans said they weren’t looking to date or be in a relationship. The most common reasons they cited: They were prioritizing other parts of their lives at the moment, or were simply enjoying the single life.
As staying single becomes less stigmatized, even more people may wind up choosing that path in the years ahead. These changes mean it’s high time for workplaces to adjust to the new reality. Here’s how:
Recognize that single people still have loved ones
Even in 2021, companies often default to the nuclear family when considering their employees’ lives outside of work. “In workshops and training sessions, leaders sometimes ask questions based on the assumption that everyone has a romantic partner and/or kids—of course, some single workers do have kids,” says DePaulo.
But managers should be sensitive to the fact that employees’ relationships and responsibilities are not limited to just partners and children. That awareness will also make employers more attuned to the realities of people from marginalized groups, who may be less likely to live in traditional nuclear households.
Immigrants and people of color, for example, are more likely to live with members of their extended family. Black women in the US have lower rates of marriage compared with women of other races, meaning that they may be more likely to be single. Members of the LGBTQ+ community may choose to surround themselves with a chosen family, particularly if they’ve experienced rejection and estrangement from biological relatives. Recognizing the legitimacy of the family you choose, rather than strictly the one you’re born or adopted into, is a far more inclusive and relevant approach for the contemporary workplace.
Treating the nuclear family as the default also has a negative impact on the growing constituency of single parents. A 2019 Pew report found that a quarter of children in the US live in single-parent households, more than any other country.
In both formal sessions and casual conversations, workplace leaders should seize the opportunity to communicate their respect for all kinds of families and relationships. If a manager wants to talk to their team about work-life balance, for example, it’s more productive to ask open-ended questions about what kinds of struggles employees are experiencing than to center the conversation around working parents’ circumstances specifically. When catching up with a single employee over coffee, it’s considerate to ask after the people in their life, just as one might inquire about a married colleague’s spouse.
Create more expansive leave policies
Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist at the University of Colorado Boulder who hosts the podcast Solo and recently launched A Single Insight, a project aimed at organizations looking to better support singles. He says that one concrete step workplaces can take to recognize the broad array of relationships people have is to create leave policies that allow people to care for any loved one.
This, too, is an issue of particular import for marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ people. A June 2020 survey from the Center for American Progress found that “fewer than half of LGBTQ Americans are most likely to rely on biological family for support when sick, and fewer than one-third are likely to rely on a spouse to whom they are legally married.”
Imagine, McGraw says, if you have a close friendship that is “equal status to a marriage. And one of the people gets sick with cancer.” Under the Family and Medical Leave Act in the US, “you cannot take a family leave to care for that person. You just have to find a way to do it.”
Workplaces, however, need not be bound by these limitations when developing and funding their leave policies, which can be designed to encompass care for anyone close to the employee. Similarly, workplaces can expand bereavement leave to include loss of any kind, rather than limiting it to a member of the immediate family.
Respect everyone’s time
When managers presume that the main reason someone would want time off work is to take care of children or spend time with a partner, child-free and single people often feel they can’t say no to putting in more hours.
One small 2017 study, published in the journal Work, Employment, and Society, interviewed 36 UK professionals who lived by themselves. “Not only did they feel unable to request working-time flexibility, they also felt unable to refuse requests to work over and above their contracted hours,” the authors of the paper explain. Another study focused on couples without kids found that many of those workers felt that they couldn’t access the same flexibility as parents.
The solution here isn’t for employers to demand more working hours from parents, but to acknowledge that single and child-free people have perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to work on weekends or stay at the office until 9pm. When companies make it clear that work-life balance is a priority for everyone, the whole company benefits.
Offer sabbaticals and other solo-friendly benefits
Paid parental leave is one of the most important ways that workplaces support employees with kids. McGraw says companies should offer similar benefits to those without kids, too—perhaps in the form of a sabbatical.
The logic, he says, is that “instead of investing into a family, they get to invest in their own professional and personal growth.”
Another solution is universal leave policies that staffers can use for almost any reason. The Society for Human Resource Management, for example, offers “open leave” to all employees, as Lila MacLellan wrote for Quartz in 2019, opening the door to “vacation, personal illness, bereavement, military service, or any kind of caregiving, including newborn or elder care.”
Flexible work schedules are another benefit from which single and childfree people are often excluded. One 2019 survey of 300 HR professionals in the US, for example, found that 56% of companies offered a four-day workweek to employees with children, whereas only 36% made the option available to workers without kids. The same survey also found that married employees receive 3.6 more days of paid time off per year than single employees, and contributed $118 more per month to married employees’ healthcare plans.
In the big picture, DePaulo says, the fairest approach may be for companies to offer “a menu of benefits, so that all employees, regardless of marital or relationship status, have access to the same dollar amount.”
This type of program, sometimes called “cafeteria-style” benefits, can include everything from paid leave, health insurance, and retirement plans to pet insurance, caregiver support, and child adoption assistance, so that people can choose the options that best suit their lifestyles.
Cafeteria-style benefits have the added advantage of preventing companies from taking a paternalistic stance in determining which kinds of choices and lifestyles are most meaningful and worthy of rewards.
“I think raising children to be contributing members of society is incredibly important,” says McGraw. “But single people, for example, give more of their time and money to charity. If you spend your Saturdays working at a soup kitchen, is that any less good for the world?”