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Famous Buildings / May 26, 2019

THE Prada-toting protagonists of “Sex and the City”, a once-popular American television show about single thirty-somethings in New York, are unlikely role models for Middle Eastern women. The second movie spin-off was partially set in Abu Dhabi, but the authorities stopped it from being filmed or even screened there.

Yet the single lifestyle appears to be catching on even in the Gulf. According to the latest statistics from the United Arab Emirates’ Marriage Fund, a government body that provides financial assistance to the affianced, about 60% of women over 30 are unmarried, up from 20% in 1995—a trend that Said al-Kitbi, a government spokesman, calls “very worrying”.

If it is any comfort, the UAE is far from alone. Singledom is on the rise almost everywhere. Euromonitor, a research firm, predicts that the world will add 48m new solo residents by 2020, a jump of 20%. This means that singletons will be the fastest-growing household group in most parts of the world (see chart).

The trend is most marked in the rich West, where it has been apparent for some time. Half of America’s adults, for instance, are unmarried, up from 22% in 1950. And nearly 15% live by themselves, up from 4%. But singles are multiplying in emerging economies too—and are changing consumption patterns. In Brazil annual sales of ready-made meals—much favoured by lone-rangers—have more than doubled in the last five years, to $1.2bn; sales of soups have tripled.

Although the phenomenon is global, the factors that drive it vary. Dilma Rousseff, the unattached president of Brazil, leads a country where rapid industrialisation has gone hand in hand with people getting married less and later. In Japan women are refusing to swap their careers for the fetters of matrimony. Even in Islamic Iran, some women are choosing education over marriage, exploiting newly relaxed divorce laws or flashing fake wedding rings to secure sole lodgings.

The picture is more troubling in China and India, where the dark arts of selection for male babies promise a generation of bachelors with diminished conjugal prospects. The inverse is true among African-Americans. America’s prison system ensnares one in nine black men between the ages of 19 and 34, narrowing the pool for black women who, by and large, do not marry outside their racial group.

Three explanations apply in general, however. First, women are often marrying later as their professional opportunities improve. Second, thanks to increased longevity, bereaved spouses are outliving their partners for longer than the widows and widowers of yesteryear. And third, changing social attitudes in many countries mean that the payoffs of marriage—financial security, sexual relations, a stable relationship—can now often be found outside the nuptial bed.

The spread of singledom has drawbacks. One-person households have a bigger carbon footprint than joint dwellings and drive up housing costs. Singles tend to have fewer children, increasing the burden on the young to support an ageing population. And single people appear more vulnerable and thus potentially costlier to society than those who have a partner: numerous studies have confirmed the psychological and health benefits of stable romantic unions.

Yet these worries may be overdone. The term “single” lumps all unmarrieds into one basket, making it hard to distinguish between true loners and those who cohabit out of wedlock or live with friends or family. Even those who live alone are not necessarily solitary. “Living alone, being alone and feeling lonely are three different social conditions, ” says Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of a recent book, “Going Solo”.

Far from being loners, Mr Klinenberg argues, singles are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbours, and to volunteer in civic organisations. This explains why singlehood proliferates in places where such networks can crystallise, he says: in many urban centres and in Scandinavia, where strong social safety nets free people to pursue their own goals. By 2020, Euromonitor predicts, almost half of households in Sweden will contain only one person.

Policymakers have tended to ignore singletons—and been guilty of what Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara, calls “singlism”. From tax breaks to holiday arrangements, couples and spouses often enjoy a host of benefits that singles do not.

Fewer marriages, better marriages

Some governments are now trying to stem the tide. The UAE’s Marriage Fund, for instance, has spent almost $16m this year in one-off grants to encourage couples to tie the knot. It also sponsors mass weddings, and publishes a regular information bulletin whose title translates as the Journal of Passion. In America the Obama administration has continued to fund the “Healthy Marriage Initiative”, a programme launched by George W. Bush, to encourage unmarried parents to get hitched, at a cost of $150m a year.

Such efforts may not work, or may even backfire. Recent studies of marriage promotion in America suggest that it is ineffective when directed towards non-white or poor families, for whom financial security seems to have a higher priority than improving intimate relationships. More broadly, some of the things that make marriages today more unstable—their voluntary nature and women’s higher standards in relationships—also explain why, when marriages work, they are fairer and more intimate than ever before, points out Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage: A History”.

So governments should stop panicking. When Cupid’s hand is forced, his arrow is liable to misfire. In early imperial Rome, when the emperor Augustus put a tax on celibacy in response to anaemic marriage rates, he faced a spate of betrothals to underage women, an open revolt from his senators—and a decline in his citizens’ conjugal appetites.