It’s happening – more people live alone now than at any other time in history, growth which indicates the greatest social change since the baby boom. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2017 there were 7.7 million people in UK households who were living alone, a significant increase from 6.6 in 1996.
In findings from Scotland’s Census 2011, 35% of the 2.4 million households in Scotland comprised of one person living alone, meaning that for the first time in history, solos account for more than a third of all households. When compared to 1961 – when single person households only accounted for 14% of all households – it is clear this is an unprecedented social change.
The explanation behind the rise is not clear cut
What can explain this rise in solo living? There is no clear-cut answer and various pieces make up the puzzle. Increased wealth, cultural change and destigmatisation of single life, young people delaying key milestones such as marriage and parenthood; as well as increased opportunities for women, longer life expectancy, an increasing trend for a childfree lifestyle, and the dawn of the internet. There is now growing recognition and acceptance of the many people live alone by choice, but there is still much debate about the reasons behind this version of society today.
Impact of divorce and separation
The impact of increasing divorce rates and higher life expectancy cannot be ignored as a factor in the rising number of people living solo. The ONS has found that men make up nearly 60% of the 2.47 million people aged 45-64 that live alone in the UK. They cite divorce with men becoming the single partner when their children go to live with their mothers, and men either waiting until they’re older to get married or forgoing marriage altogether as reasons behind this. However, women still make up the majority of one-person households at 54%, in comparison to men at 46%, owing to women’s longer life expectancy.
Transformative on different levels
In his book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, sociologist Eric Klinenberg rejects the common view that the rise of solo living reflects societal fragmentation. He says, “the reality of this great social experiment is far more interesting – and far less isolating – than these conversations would have us believe.” The rise of solo living is rather a transformative social experience, changing the way people understand their relationship with themselves as well as their relationships with others. The trend is also having a transformative influence on how society develops; how cities are constructed and economies are progressing.
Living alone is a worldwide trend
This isn’t a social change which is limited to the UK. Solo living rates are increasing throughout the world but the trend is particularly popular in Europe, with Denmark leading the way at a staggering 47.4% of households inhabited by solos, and a rate of around 40% in both Norway and Germany. More traditionally religious countries such as Turkey, Portugal and Ireland haven’t yet seen quite the same considerable increase (just slightly higher than 20%) but nonetheless, the change is noteworthy.
Overall, increasing wealth in developed countries and the social security of welfare states have led to more people worldwide having the means to live in single person households, hence ‘buying’ their freedom and independence.
Solo living is no longer an exception, but a norm
As a rising number of people inhabit one-person households, it has become the norm in some cities – for example, 60% of people in the London borough of Islington live alone. Consequently, the cringeworthy, Bridget Jones singleton stereotype is a laughable relic of a bygone era.
When once solo people may have been viewed with pity and as social failures, today they are more likely to be seen as trendy urbanites with full social lives and interesting hobbies. In fact, according to Eric Klinenberg’s research, solos contribute more to the economy than their married counterparts, spending more on leisure activities, eating out, hobbies and entertainment.
Solo living has become a chosen way of life, rather than a last resort. It is linked to the rise of living childfree; as society evolves from the confines of tradition wane. People have become increasingly free to choose the life they desire rather than a life expected of them. For many, that is a life of solo living.
Encouraging more social interaction
Paradoxically, living alone seems to encourage more, rather than less, social interaction. Contrary to the traditional idea of humans as social creatures not designed to live alone or be alone; on the whole, solos actually get out more, attending restaurants, art classes and lectures. They are more inclined to socialise and spend time with family and friends than those who are coupled-up, according to research by US sociologist Erin Cornwell. In fact, research suggests that because it encourages one to socialise more outside the home, solo living is good for your mental health, and can allow for greater happiness.
Solos pay a premium for living alone
Far from being frowned-upon, or the social taboo it once was, today having a place of one’s own is a mark of success. Solos area arguably paying a premium for the privilege of living alone and there are a growing number of businesses marketing to this previously untapped sector. While the travel and dating industries have been targeting solos for years, other industries have lagged behind. The evidence is compelling for businesses wishing to get in on the action.
For instance, the number of people travelling solo has increased by 60% since 2009 and an estimated £12bn was generated in 2015 by people choosing to take a holiday alone. The solo travel trend only continues to grow – it is set to be the top travel trend of 2019. Solos are also spending more on entertainment such as concerts, festivals, going to the cinema, and dining alone. The solo pound and consumer market is a huge and highly lucrative market that businesses ignore at their peril.
Indeed, British businesses may be wise to take inspiration from their Chinese counterparts on this front. What started as an anti-Valentines Day movement by students celebrating their single status has become China’s answer to Black Friday – a day of incredible sales and discounts, all targeted at solos.
Social media has a role to play
Advances in technology and the advent of social media have a significant role in the rise of solo living. With today’s smartphones, you are never truly alone: social contact is just a click away if you wish. The long term cognitive effects of social media usage have yet to be measured. But at present, many report the positive impact of available technology has on their real-life social interactions, thanks to apps which enable them to establish relationships beyond their longstanding friends and family network.
Although there is research suggesting that heavy use of social media is linked to loneliness, in actual fact this is dependent on how you use it. Social media can be very beneficial for those who live alone if used to connect with like-minded people and online communities.
Research by Rutgers University communications scholar Keith Hampton, Social Isolation and New Technology, tells us heavy internet users are more likely to have large and diverse social networks, as well as being more likely to visit cafes, parks and restaurants, and to meet people with different perspectives and beliefs.
Solos are an important demographic
The widespread effects of solo living on our communities and economies, our families, relationships and upon ourselves are both profound and unpredictable. The trend will inevitably contribute towards the restructuring our societies for decades to come. There’s no escaping the fact that solos playing an essential role in society today, largely unseen until fairly recently. Nevertheless, the tide is turning and this important demographic is finally being recognised and accepted. Solo living is here to stay.