Single life: a room of one’s own

The number of people choosing to live alone has escalated dramatically over the past half century and is expected to rise in the coming decades. Vision investigates the causes and implications of the boom in singlehood

In 1966, the Los Angeles Times ran an article featuring Linda B, a 25-year-old advertising copywriter who possessed “a pretty face, a pleasant personality, a snazzy apartment. And what’s more, she can cook!” Yet Linda couldn’t find a husband in this “heartless city”. Hers was a predicament shared by many. America’s youth, the newspaper explained, were leaving cities in droves, seeking the greener, romantic pastures of small towns.

Rising trends

As it turns out, this Mad Men-like scenario was both right and wrong. Cities did not end up pushing people away, but urbanisation has encouraged increasing numbers of people, all around the world, to stay single for longer. Since 1950, the proportion of unmarried adults in the US has risen from 22 per cent to nearly 50 per cent, and the number of people living alone has climbed from one in 30 to one in seven. Lone residents account for more than a quarter of American and Australian households, and more than a third of homes in Germany, France, Japan and the UK. And the solo-living trend is not confined to the developed world; between 2010 and 2020, single-person households in emerging economies will grow at more than twice the pace of their counterparts in the West, according to market intelligence firm Euromonitor International.

But living alone does not mean being lonely, stresses Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. He points to research showing that lone rangers are more likely to go out to restaurants, to attend public talks and classes, and to volunteer.

Klinenberg’s singletons appear to be taking advantage of what Jane Jacobs documented in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities: the way high-density living creates a rich social tapestry of interactions both casual and significant. Telecommunications have brought people even closer, and in developed countries the rise of the welfare state has given them a safety net other than their relatives. Klinenberg’s cities are not sterile hives, but spots with vibrant and supportive social scenes. People live in cities to avoid isolation – and paradoxically, that is what liberates them to go it alone.

Singles gain ground where women are expanding their horizons. “When women are asked to choose between unequal marriage and independence, or between work and motherhood, they often choose singlehood,” says Stephanie Coontz, a historian of marriage. She points to the leap in divorce rates in Western countries after the 1970s, and notes that a similar trend exists today in rapidly expanding economies, such as India.

Among American women, demographics are the main determinant of when marriage takes place, with college-educated women often postponing marriage. This sort of transition appears to be taking place in the UAE.  Of its internationally diverse population, 60 per cent of women over 30 are currently unwed. Today’s young women are looking to secure both a husband and an education, says Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayed University in Dubai. “A generation after the oil boom women are learning from their aunties, who pursued a career but missed the marriage boat,” says Sabban.

Ageing populations

The singles trend is not confined to young strivers. Klinenberg points out that rising life expectancies mean elderly people are now alone for longer after their spouse dies. In times of crisis or sickness, this makes male survivors more vulnerable, but elderly single women, who are adept at finding surrogate support networks, are often happier than their married counterparts. With recent studies suggesting that a majority of lonely people in their sunset years are married or living with others, it makes sense that many of the widows in Klinenberg’s book are fiercely wedded to their latter-day independence.

Prosperity and better living standards go hand-in-hand with the rising popularity of singledom. Living alone only becomes a lifestyle option once wages are high enough for workers to be comfortably self-sustaining. So as economic growth in emerging markets pushes more citizens into the middle class, the incidence of single-dwellers can be expected to keep pace. Euromonitor International predicts that by 2020, the world will add 48 million new single households, and that they will be the fastest growing household group on every continent except Australasia.

Single people around the world tend to prioritise convenience more than traditional families, according to Euromonitor’s research. They favour smaller homes, prepared foods, space-saving appliances and mobile devices. Singles may also have more discretionary income to spend on leisure and recreation. The booming Indonesian middle class is a notable example: single-person households account for 5.6 per cent of total consumer expenditure there, growing from US$8.7bn in 2005 to US$26.3bn in 2011.

Yet the global outlook is not all rosy. Those who live alone tend to place greater demands on natural resources and the environment. One 2006 study from the UK concluded that solo-dwellers consume, per person, 55 per cent more electricity, 42 per cent more packaging and 38 per cent more products than people living in a four-person household. This consumption, in turn, produces more carbon dioxide, and places extra pressure on the housing market. Consequently, the growth of singledom will put more pressure on policymakers to encourage eco-friendly and efficient housing solutions.

Singlehood has become a “thing” rather than its historical role as a mere lack or absence; being single is no longer a waystation on the road to adulthood. Coupledom still has cachet, but in many places around the world it is losing its grip as the exclusive organising principle of social and economic life.