On Monday, a Wall Street Journal article alerted me, an unmarried millennial woman who lives alone, to an alarmingly depressing statistic: The net worth of married couples between the ages of 25 and 34 was nearly nine times as much as that of single people in 2019. Nine times! And that was before our current 8.5% inflationary moment!
As the story’s author, Julia Carpenter (who called the millennials-and-money stories she reports the “frownie face beat”), tweeted, “More single people are facing big financial challenges—inflation, high housing prices, the possible fallout of a recession—completely on their own.”
Cool, cool, cool. Not, uh, exactly what I spiral about at least once a month in my tiny (but lovely!) Brooklyn one-bedroom, for which my rent went up 18% two months ago (and I’m on the low end of post-lockdown New York City rent hikes).
The cost of living solo is real: A Vox piece in December asked readers to “think about your household’s monthly expenses. There are the big-ticket items — your rent or mortgage, your health care, maybe a student loan. Then there’s the smaller stuff: the utility bills; the internet ...You pay for food, and household items like toilet paper and garbage bags and lightbulbs.” Then it asked you to “imagine paying for all those things completely on your own.” Reader, I snorted. Not something I have to imagine!
I don’t have a strong desire to be married, but the financial incentives are appealing. The ability to split rent, groceries, my insane electric bill thanks to soaring summer temperatures? Home ownership being slightly more in reach if I could pool my slim savings with those of my partner? Just the thought of that brings me a brief moment of bliss—the kind of bliss that I imagine people with trust funds, or people who say “nah, I got this” after every round of drinks, regularly experience.
I am privileged compared to many other Americans, but the net worth statistic—which I told my colleagues made me “want to throw up”—in the WSJ had me so nauseated because it’s a clear, numerical distillation of the bleak financial future many of my peers and I are facing. (In 2010, married couples’ net worths were only four times those of their single peers.)
Last week, Defector’s Kelsey McKinney wrote a thoughtful article about how Sydney Sweeney, one of the most in-demand young actors in Hollywood (and an unmarried, single woman, I might add) can’t take six months off to have a hypothetical child, because she doesn’t have family money to pay her mortgage and her living expenses. This is, in large part, due to the way the film and TV industry has changed with the rise of streaming.
“The issue is not that the people of the world value television less than they did in the 1990s,” McKinney wrote. “The reality is that the people with the most money have devised, at every turn, new and more bulletproof ways for them to make and keep more money, and for the people who make things to make less. This is the eternal story of labor and management; it just has hot people in it.”
If a famous actor with two Emmy nominations for two different shows can’t even afford to have a kid, it’s clear that the way our economic system currently functions is helping ever-fewer people in ever-fewer ways.
If there were some other widely accepted way we assess and value financial health in this country—something beyond reifying home ownership, which feels firmly out of my reach and also, honestly, sounds kind of exhausting—I might get less anxious and resentful at seeing the gulf between the net worths of my married peers and myself.
But to have what I want in life—a home I feel comfortable and safe in; meals I enjoy; enough downtime to not get angry at myself when I “waste” a weekend afternoon watching TikToks—I have to acquire wealth. Being unmarried apparently makes that a hell of a lot harder.
Cue Amy March: Marriage has always been, after all, an economic proposition.