Why the jobs recovery favors single workers

August 16, 2012: 9:39 AM ET
job recovery singles charts 2
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

As the economy slowly recovers, single people are finding jobs much faster than their married peers.

Single men and women lost about 5 million jobs during the financial crisis, and have since gained back 90% of them, according to the Labor Department. That's not too shabby, especially considering the jobs recovery has been so slow.

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But married people, who make up a slightly larger part of the adult population, lost even more jobs and have gained far fewer back. Of the 6 million jobs they lost, they've recouped only about 22%.

Could employers be favoring single workers?

That's unlikely, economists say. The real story probably lies in other demographic factors.

The first clue is the timing. Singles slowly started recovering jobs in 2009, whereas married people didn't see a recovery begin until 2011.

That could be of their own choosing, according to University of Chicago Economist Bruce Meyer. He suggests that in dual-earner households, married people have slightly more freedom to take their time in searching for a new job that's a good fit.

"It may be that among many married couples, it's less crucial that both work," Meyer said. "If one is laid off and the other is working, the unemployed spouse can afford to take a while to look for a job."

A single person who has no other financial support, probably can't afford to be as picky.

The other clue is the age of new workers.

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People under age 35 have been gaining far more jobs than those in the 35 to 55 age range. Younger workers are more likely to be single than those over 35.

"Age could have a lot to do with it," said Betsey Stevenson, economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School." In this recession, younger people have been much more likely to experience unemployment, but they've also been returning to work much quicker."

One reason is that young, single people are more likely to take low wage positions or move to a new location in order to take a job. That flexibility opens up more job opportunities -- even if they're not necessarily better ones.

Almost half of adults under age 35 have taken jobs they don't want, just to pay the bills, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

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The same study showed one in five have also postponed getting married because of the economy.

That could be another reason why singles are gaining jobs far faster than married couples. The number of new marriages in the United States declined 5% in 2010 alone, according to the Pew Research Center. That decline probably continued into 2012, given population numbers from the Labor Department's monthly survey.

Those figures show the single population is growing at more than double the speed of the married population. Should that continue, single adults will soon account for a larger share of the U.S. population than married couples for the first time on record.

"At first glance, it looks like singles are doing much better. They are getting more jobs," said American University economist Robert Lerman." But on closer inspection, the real issue is there simply are a lot more single people."

That said, the unemployment rate is still lower for married workers, and it's been that way since the Labor Department started tracking marriage statistics in 1955. Perhaps this recovery will level the playing field.

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