An increasing number of young people is staying single for a long period of time. Is it becoming more difficult for them to find a perfect match? Or do they just not want to? A new Belgian study aims to find out.
The classic ideal of the white picket fence life may be firmly ingrained in society’s mind as “the standard,” but this has long since stopped being the case for many young people, according to Dimitri Mortelmans, sociologist at the UAntwerp and head of the Centre for Demography, Family and Health.
“Young people are staying single for much longer; this research aims to better understand the reasons why. Is it because they no longer want a relationship, or is it because they find it difficult to get into one? That is what this study wants to map out,” he told The Brussels Times.
To do that, Mortelmans’ “Singleton Project” received a prestigious grant from the European Research Council (ERC). He is only the third UAntwerp researcher to get such a grant in 15 years.
“The rising number of single people has long been a story of the ageing population: we – and especially women – live longer, and are widowed longer,” he said. “But in recent years, we have also seen a huge increase in singles at a younger age.”
The invisible divorce wave
While a lot of previous research centres around divorces and breakups among married people (as there are official statistics for that), not a lot is known about unmarried couples living together. “But analysis showed that the number of breakups among those living together, especially in the youngest categories, was extremely high – much higher than among married people in the same age category.”
As divorce rates rise rapidly, it might seem that it would be better to not get married in the first place. After all, living together but not being married is nothing out of the ordinary these days.
Mortelmans believes that this is largely due to the lack of official figures about breakups among non-married couples. “As it turns out, those young people also go through a lot of breakups.”
Previous studies on young adults have shown that they often leave the parental home later than previous generations, often due to studying and saving up money for their own space – a phenomenon endearingly referred to as “Hotel Mama” in Flanders.
“But when they do leave the house, it is usually in a white-picket-fence kind of story, even if they do not officially get married,” Mortelmans said. “It may take longer to get in a serious relationship, and they may move in together later than before, but in the end, they still do it.”
However, those traditional assumptions are no longer a reality for many, according to him. “Now, it seems like young adults are going through a more difficult relationship process, and switch between short periods of being in a relationship and longer periods of being single.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Mortelmans wants to find out if online dating is making it more difficult to find a partner. “You come into contact with many potential partners, so it should be easier, right? But my hypothesis is that just is not true.”
According to him, the abundance of potential partners could lead people to become more critical. “They have an idea in their head of what their ideal partner is. But if you go on a date with someone new, there will always be something that is not perfect.”
“And precisely because online dating promises and offers such a multitude of potential partners, people often have the feeling that the next one might be better,” Mortelmans said.
Voluntary vs involuntary singles
One of the difficulties with research into singleness is that it is not a stable parameter. On top of that, not everyone is single for the same reason. “People can have a particularly bad breakup and decide that they will stay single for a whole. Then after six months, a year, they decide to dip go out and find someone again.”
The opposite is also true, and is known as “dating fatigue:” this happens to people who have been on a lot of dates for a very long time hoping to find the right person without success. “They then go from being involuntarily to voluntarily single.”
People, especially young ones, often tend to switch between the two. “Middle age people who have just gotten divorced after 30 years of marriage regularly decide to stay single for the rest of their lives, but it is always a bit different with young people,” said Mortelmans. “But how different, that is what I am going to find out.”