It’s happening – more people live alone now than at any other time in history, growth which implies the greatest social change since the baby boom. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2015 there were 7.7 million people in UK households who were living alone.
In findings from Scotland’s Census 2011, 35% of the 2.4 million households in Scotland comprised of one person living alone, accounting for more than a third of all households – for the very first time in history. Compare this to 1961 – when single person households only accounted for 14% of all households – 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, longer life expectancy, and the dawn of the internet. There is now a growing recognition and acceptance that many people live solo 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 Office for National Statistics shows that men make up nearly 60% of the 2.47 million people aged 45-64 that live alone. The reasons for this are cited as failed marriages (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. Women still, however, 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 states: “When there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators present it as a sign of fragmentation. In fact, 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 living alone has been a transformative social experience. It changes the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships. It shapes the way we build our cities and develop our economies.”
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 seen mostly in Europe, with Denmark leading the way at a staggering 47.4 % of single-person households and with around 40% in Norway and Germany. More traditionally religious countries such as Turkey, Portugal and Ireland haven’t 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 rising numbers of people account for one-person households, it has become the norm in some cities – for example, 60% of people in the London borough of Islington live alone. This means the stereotype of the cringeworthy ‘Bridget Jones’ singleton is a laughable relic of a bygone era.
When once solo people would be pityingly viewed 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.
Encouraging more social interaction
Paradoxically, living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction. While some argue that humans are social creatures and are not designed to live alone and be alone; on the whole solo people actually get out more, attending restaurants, art classes and lectures, and 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.
Solos pay a premium for living alone
Far from being the frowned-upon, social taboo it once was, today having a place of one’s own is a mark of success. Solos willingly pay a premium for the privilege of living alone and a growing number of businesses are marketing to this previously untapped sector. While the travel and dating industries have been targeting solo people for years, other industries are lagging behind. The evidence is compelling to 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 solo people taking holidays. With solos also spending more on entertainment such as concerts, festivals, the going to the cinema, and with more and more dining alone, the solo consumer market is a huge and highly lucrative market that businesses ignore at their peril.
Social media has a role to play
Advances in technology and the advent of social media have played a significant part in solo living. Some argue with smartphones you are never truly alone, social contact being just a click away if you wish. While the long term cognitive effects of social media usage have yet to be measured, at present many people report it as having a positive impact on their real-life social interactions, thanks to apps which enable them to establish relationships beyond their longstanding friends and family network.
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 ourselves are both profound and unpredictable, restructuring our societies for decades to come. Solos play an essential role in society today, largely unseen until fairly recently. Nevertheless, the tide is turning and this important demographic is finally being recognised. Solo living is here to stay.