SXSW Diary: The singles scene

Single women and how to best market to them was a popular topic of conversation at the Austin festival on Saturday, writes the worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group

AUSTIN — As a single woman living in New York, it’s curious to find oneself, or one’s state of being, personally embodying a growing trend … or, at least, a topic of conversation. Single women are under the microscope — as a market, a political force, a demographic, a phenomenon, a problem and an opportunity.

Marketing to single women was a theme here at SXSW on Saturday. Fortune writer Jon Birger had a talk on his recently launched book, Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game. And another panel held on the same day was dubbed, "Marketers! Guess what? Singles LIKE being single!"  

The talks follow the release of Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, which got a front-page feature in New York magazine. (The cover image, featuring a glossy red, manicured middle finger flipping the bird, set the tone.) The feature came with five daily think pieces on being a single woman, including: "Alone at 37, I’m learning to love the worst case scenario"; "I feel destined to be single, and that’s OK"; and, "I don’t want kids, but I love other people’s."

A few months ago, of course, there was also Nancy Jo Sales’ August 2015 headline-grabbing Vanity Fair feature, "Tinder and the Dawn of the "Dating Apocalypse," an examination of the platform’s impact on dating culture and single women.

Central to a lot of the discourse is the fact that women are more educated, affluent and successful than ever before. Birger’s book argues that the rising number of female college graduates is creating a narrowing marriage pool for women. In Manhattan there are 38% more female college graduates than male counterparts, and in Washington, 49% more.

"It’s not that he’s just not that into you — It’s that there aren’t enough of him," states Date-onomics' book jacket. "Using a combination of demographics, statistics, game theory, and number crunching, Date-onomics tells what every college-educated, heterosexual, looking-for-a-partner single woman needs to know: The ‘man deficit’ is real."

The two critical takeaways, says Birger, are: One, it’s not you. Two, knowledge is power, so here’s what to do about it.

I met with Birger here on Saturday to talk about the book, and it turns out the solutions are, short term: Move to Silicon Valley, where the ratios of educated men to women, are reversed. And long term: Address the problem of boys and education by helping them catch up. Hmm.

From a marketing standpoint, Traister’s idea is more compelling — it points to the opportunity in truly understanding this empowered, increasingly affluent group. "Across classes, and races, we are seeing a wholesale revision of what female life might entail," writes Traister in New York magazine. "We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry."

There’s no doubt that as a macro-trend, single-hood is on the rise, which means marketers need to think carefully about how they talk to not just women, but every single person, of every age. (According to Euromonitor, by 2020, the number of single-person households globally will rise to 331 million, or 15.7% of total households. The U.S. will have the highest number of single-person households in the world at 36.3 million, followed by China (31.6 million), Japan (18.2 million) and India (17.4 million) in 2020.

It’s also interesting when you consider that singledom is extending to older age groups. "Gray divorces" are on the rise: nearly 1 in 4 Americans going through a divorce is over 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 50+ divorce rate has doubled since 1990, and the 65+ divorce rate has more than doubled, while overall rates have fallen. Hence, TV shows such as "Grace & Frankie" now depict the formerly taboo subject of sex and dating over 70.

As someone apparently living this trend, I personally prefer Traister’s stance, because it’s closer to the truth of how I feel. (And, I suspect, many Manhattan-based, Soul Cycle-loving, Whole Foods-shopping, designer shoe-wearing, board-room occupying woman will feel.)

In the same way skincare brands are shifting language away from "anti-aging" and "age-defying" to more celebratory and desire-based messages such as "pro-age" and "age-less," themes of empowerment, nuance, and celebration — as opposed to "it’s not your fault" — will be most effective in reaching singles. I should know, because, quite frankly, being independent, educated, and solvent is pretty damn empowering.

Lucie Greene is worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's Innovation Group.

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