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How single Americans are feeling 2 years into the pandemic

A new Pew Research Center survey says dating was just plain hard after COVID-19 hit

SHARE How single Americans are feeling 2 years into the pandemic

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Americans who are “single and looking” often complain that it’s hard to find compatible companions. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a tough task even harder, according to a new study from Pew Research Center.

In a poll conducted in February, 7 in 10 single adults said their dating lives were not going well, wrote Anna Brown, a Pew research associate who focuses on demographic trends, in the research brief released Wednesday.

That’s a slightly higher share than the two-thirds who just before the pandemic said things weren’t going well. At that time, three-fourths said it was hard to find people to date.

Now, most single men and women say the pandemic has made dating even harder, while about a third say it’s roughly the same. Just 3% believe dating is now easier than it was before COVID-19 hit.

According to the survey, 71% of daters younger than 30 say it’s harder, compared to 58% of those who are older.

Meanwhile, most single Americans (56%) say they are not even looking for a partner right now. Not even for casual dates. About 3 in 10 say the pandemic is part of the reason they’re not looking.

Among those who are looking, one-third say they would like to find someone to share a committed relationship, 16% want casual dates and half would be OK with either.

Has the pandemic contributed to more loneliness and isolation, as some have suggested? While the study didn’t look directly at that question, more than 1 in 4 young adults (22%) did say that the pandemic makes them want to find a committed relationship. Fewer than 10% of older adults said that. Brown pointed out that men (15%) are more likely than women (8%) to be interested in commitment.

Pew’s new research also showed that the sometimes testy dialogue surrounding the pandemic doesn’t weigh heavily in dating discussions. Most of the respondents said they don’t care about a potential partner’s vaccination status, though political ideology reveals some sharp differences.

While, overall, 41% care if a would-be date is vaccinated, for Republicans the share is 14%. Among Democrats, 56% said they would only date someone who had gotten vaccinated against COVID-19.

Less sharp is the divide based on education: Just under half of those who have a college degree say they would only date someone who is vaccinated, compared to 38% of those who had some college or less.

Why people date

Dating — and singles’ goals for it — have been in flux for some time.

In 2017, the Observer reported that “there are more single adults living, working, and yes, still breathing, in the United States than ever before in history. In 2017, the U.S. census reported 110.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18 — that’s 45.2% of the American adult population — carrying out their lives to a new set of societal norms.” The article asked if unmarried Americans are “doomed or onto something truly exciting.”

Where the vast majority of American adults once dated in hopes of finding a marriage partner, the 2021 American Family Survey found that younger adults are less likely than older ones to consider marriage a long-term goal that’s important for a happy life.

That’s not to say that marriage is not held in high regard. According to the nationally representative survey of 3,000 Americans that was fielded last summer by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, more than 6 in 10 adults disagree with the statement that marriage is more of a burden than benefit to society. But nearly a third disagree to some extent that marriage is needed to create strong families. And 48% agree marriage is not as important as having a strong commitment to a partner, while 31% disagree.

Richard J. Petts, Ball State University professor of sociology, told the Deseret News in October that, while other family forms have become as accepted as marriage, marriage still ranks at the top as “sort of the ideal.” But he noted that the ideal feels out of reach for a lot of people.

“People expect their marital partner to be a best friend, a lifelong companion, an idealized notion no one can live up to. And people also have extravagant views of what a wedding should be,” he said at the time.

In 2019, Pew reported that the share of U.S. adults who have married is relatively stable, at around 50%, but that’s an 8 percentage-points drop from 1990. “One factor driving this change is that Americans are staying single longer. The median age at first marriage had reached its highest point on record: 30 years for men and 28 years for women in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,” researchers noted.

Meanwhile, the share of adults 50 and older who divorce had doubled from 5% in 1990 to 10% in 2015, that report said.

Even the number of Americans interested in dating has been dwindling for some time, according to other Pew Research Center studies. According to a 2020 analysis by Brown, among the 31% of American adults who are single, there’s a 50-50 split between being “on and off the dating market.”

The new Pew survey included 2,616 U.S. adults who said they are not married, living with a partner or in a committed relationship. All were part of the center’s American Trends Panel.