Women are skipping marriage and becoming a force in the workplace 

The number of working single women who have never married has grown three times faster than the overall pool of workers in the past decade. 

Single, unmarried women are a fast-growing employee group within the workforce. Hero Images/Getty Images

The number of single, unmarried women in the workforce has grown three times faster than the overall pool of workers in the past decade. 

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The number of single, unmarried women in the workforce has grown three times faster than the overall pool of workers in the past decade. 

Women today are spending a larger portion of their lives single, many of whom are waiting longer to marry or start families, while others are opting to remain permanently unattached. It’s a global trend, according to Dinah Hannaford, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Houston. In the U.S., the median age of first marriage for women has risen from a low of 20.1 in 1956 to an estimated age of 28.2 last year, according to the Census Bureau.

More than half (52%) of women are unmarried or separated as of 2021, according to a recent report from Wells Fargo Economics. “As women spend a greater portion of their lives as a single economic unit, it is ushering in changes to their relationship with the labor market,” the report notes.

Although the reasons behind delaying or skipping marriage vary, careers play a large role—as the numbers show. Single, unmarried women, as it turns out, are a rapidly growing segment of the labor force, holding the highest participation rate of all women. The participation rate for married women, for example, is about 7 percentage points lower than that for single women, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Unmarried single women now account for 16% of workers, up from 13.9% in 2012, according to the Wells Fargo research. 

These unmarried women are increasing their share of the labor force not only because of their growing population numbers, but also because they tend to have a greater financial need for work. Single women, particularly those who have never married, usually only have their own earnings to rely on, creating more of an imperative to hold down employment. Researchers found that the labor force participation rate of never-married women has increased 1.9 percentage points over the last 10 years—higher than the rate of never-married men. 

View the Prime-age Women's Labor Participation Has Fully Rebounded chart

The growing labor force participation rate among unmarried women also stands in contrast to an overall steady decline in the total U.S. participation rate (even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic). “The rising number of single women in the United States has thus provided some much-needed support to the U.S. labor force over the past decade,” the report says. 

The labor force participation rate of working women (ages 25 to 54) has finally, fully rebounded after 13.6 million women lost their jobs during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago. In February, 77.2% of prime-age women were working or actively looking for a job, on par with the pre-pandemic rate of 77%.

But women—even single unmarried women—are still employed at lower rates in the U.S. than men due to a number of headwinds, including a lack of childcare, wage disparities, tax policies, and even government benefits. The latest data shows men’s workforce participation is still roughly 12 points higher than women.

So while single women who have never married are increasingly a critical labor source—particularly as employers continue to struggle with recruiting—there are still challenges to overcome to see continued financial and economic improvement for this sector of the population.

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