It's been a long time since single adulthood was just a hurried way station between adolescence and marriage. Today the median age of first marriage is rising for both men and women, and singles make up 41 percent of American adults 18 and over. In fact, most Americans can expect to spend fully half of their adult lives unmarried.
Singles are an increasingly diverse group. Being unmarried these days could mean living with an opposite-sex partner — as 9.8 million Americans did in 2005 — or becoming a single mother by choice rather than necessity, a growing trend. Only about one-third of America's 90 million unmarrieds live alone, and about 14 percent of single adults are over the age of 65. As what it means to be single changes, the growing economic clout of singles as a class means that cities can ill afford to lose them, as sociologist Richard Florida argues in "The Rise of the Creative Class."
So what lucky cities stand the best chance of attracting this crucial class? We answer that question in our seventh annual Best Cities for Singles special report. We looked at 40 of the largest urbanized areas in the country and judged them on culture, nightlife, job growth, the cost of living alone, online dating, the number of other singles and that ever-elusive quality, cool.
There have been major changes in the rankings this year. The winner: San Francisco, up from fourth place. It ranked first for culture and received high marks for number of singles, nightlife, online dating and cool. The "city that never sleeps," New York, N.Y., came in a strong second place, thanks to its performance as the country's No. 1 spot for nightlife. Entertainment mecca Los Angeles came in third, Atlanta fourth and Chicago fifth. Rounding out the top 10 are Washington D.C., San Diego, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth and Philadelphia.
Denver, meanwhile, our top-ranked city from 2004 to 2006, has dropped to 16th place. But before Denver city elders start beating themselves up over this, we should note that this is largely because, amid several refinements to our methodology this year, we've switched to a new way of defining each city. In the past, the boundaries and population of each city were drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau's list of "Metropolitan Statistical Areas." But in 2007, we've begun using the Census Bureau's "Urbanized Area," which provides a tighter focus on cities themselves.
That means the youthful, nearby city of Boulder is no longer included in our assessment of Denver, and that hurt the Mile-High City a lot. But Denver still has one major draw for singles: It's ranked No. 1 on affordability.
Our switch to the Census Bureau's "urbanized area" definition also means several cities that had been on our list in previous years — Nashville and North Carolina's Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham — are no longer included, since they lack a large enough central population in their urban centers. Several new cities — Jacksonville, Fla., Buffalo, N.Y., Memphis and Baltimore — replace them.
Also new this year: We selected a "most eligible" bachelor and bachelorette for many of our cities. Like any such list, our picks are a bit subjective and somewhat eclectic. We started by getting nominations from locals and held a newsroom poll to determine the winners. We considered only public figures — which is why the list is heavy on athletes and news anchors — and which is also why your brother the charming and handsome surgeon didn't get chosen. To determine eligibility, we merely confirmed that our selections were not married. We did not check to see if they had a "serious" boyfriend or girlfriend.
Of course, being single is about much more than just dating. Providence, R.I., fell to the bottom of our list this year. That's partly because it came in last in the online dating category. But it also scored low in several other categories, coming 35th in job growth. Singles want to know that they'll be able to nurture an interesting and prosperous career, and Providence just doesn't look that promising.
The ease of mobility these days means that the young, educated and unattached can live pretty much where they please. Our special report provides a dash of guidance for singles themselves, as well as to the cities and companies that want to lure them.
© 2012 Forbes.com