The Return Of The Spinster

September 30, 2015 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” So begins Gen-X journalist Kate Bolick’s recent book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Ownan exploration of the pleasures of staying single and living independently. Though Bolick’s book largely examines modern singlehood through the lens of her own experience, it embodies a demographic sea change that is transforming midlife and reviving a social role that was last seen in force a century ago. Today, a growing share of Boomer and Xer women is choosing to remain unmarried and childless—the outgrowth of a complex knot of economic, cultural, and social changes decades in the making.

First coined in the 14th century, the term “spinster” was originally used to describe a woman (typically unmarried) who spun thread for a living. It wasn’t until centuries later that “spinster” took on its contemporary meaning: an older woman who seems unlikely to ever marry and does not have children. Yet as Bolick points out, in societies where marriage is typically considered a woman’s primary life goal, the term comes loaded with negative connotations. Spinsters have long been depicted as undesirable or desperate anomalies—the target of whispers and the objects of pity.

Throughout most of the postwar era, the share of middle-aged women who qualify as spinsters shrank. From late-wave Lost through the G.I.s and Silent, the share of women age 45 and older who had never married fell steadily, bottoming out at about 5% in 1990. The share of childless women in their 40s and 50s declined as well.

In recent decades, these declines have reversed. From early-wave Boomers to Xers, the share of never-married women age 45 and older has ticked back up to 9% today. Meanwhile, the share of childless women in their early 40s has surged (from 10.2% in 1980 to 18.8% in 2010). In 2012, changes in the Census’s data processing methods altered its estimates of childlessness. Under the new formula, this figure has continued rising—from 17.2% in 2012 to 18.5% in 2014.

To be sure, interpreting these numbers is not an exact science. Obviously, the categories “unmarried” and “childless” do not exactly overlap. Also, someone can be unmarried but in a committed straight or same-sex relationship. Yet given the magnitude of these shifts—for example, a rough doubling in the share of childlessness at age 45 from first-wave Boomers to first-wave Xers—there’s no doubt that the ranks of those who fit the traditional image have grown.

What explains the rise in spinsterhood? The most oft-cited explanation is the decades-long divergence of men’s life prospects relative to women’s.  As women have gained on—and in some ways, surpassed—men in education and employment, the “marriage market” of compatible partners has greatly narrowed. According to the new book Date-onomics, the dating pool for college-educated people in their 30s now has five women for every four men.

Changing public attitudes and new technologies have expanded the range of choices available to women as well. More relaxed views toward single motherhood—combined with improved contraceptives and developments like in-vitro fertilization—have further eased the pressure on women to conceive traditionally or within marriage.

These rising prospects have dovetailed with powerful generational currents that have championed or facilitated women’s independence. It’s no coincidence that Boomers were the first modern-era generation to drive up rates of the never-married and childless. They shifted the heart of the feminist movement from dismantling legal obstacles to advocating for the expansion of women’s personal and professional opportunities. Now as they age, many unmarried Boomers (both singles and the rising ranks of divorcees) are seeking companionship in the form of roommates or other communal living arrangements.

Generation Xers, who witnessed record divorce rates growing up, put self-sufficiency first. They believe that if marriage and children happen for them, great—but if it doesn’t, they need to first be prepared to live life on their own terms. For Millennials, it’s simply too early to tell if their record-low rates of marriage and parenthood are indeed signs of a “marriage apocalypse” and “baby bust”—or if Millennials are simply delaying marriage and childbirth.

This wave is helping to change the stereotypes that have long been associated with single and childless women—not just in America, but in nearly every culture worldwide. They’re fighting back against the notion that their status should be a source of shame. After one Xer recently told The New York Times somewhat flippantly that she doesn’t want childrenreporter Teddy Wayne noted: “In a previous time, that statement would have been spoken in a whisper to evade censure. Now it’s anything but heretical.”

Some argue, however, that we still have a long way to go. As Bolick discussed in the 2011Atlantic article that inspired her book, Americans’ ideas and images of single people—particularly single women—remain largely negative. The stigma is even stronger for childless-by-choice women, who face an enormous amount of judgment in a society that still equates womanhood with motherhood. Author Meghan Daum drew on these criticisms to form the title of recent book of essays from writers who have opted out of parenthood: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

This isn’t the first time that this debate has arisen. The culture markers of today’s Boomer spinsters echo those of Missionary Generation (born 1860-1882), whom historians Ruth Freeman and Patricia Klaus dubbed “the first generation of bachelor women.” Missionaries were driven by similarly idealistic notions that the domestic life constrained women’s opportunities, with many becoming key players in the suffrage movement and arguing that marriage should be an option rather than a necessity.

Amid intense public disapproval, these women forged ahead and paved the way for those demanding the same level of respect today. Nearly a century later, the sentiment of one woman’s letter to Scriber’s Magazine in 1917 resonates: “I’ve chosen my life as deliberately as my sisters and brothers have chosen theirs…I want to be a spinster and I want to be a good one.”

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