Tiffany Jenkins: Solo living, a sign of progress?

The global rise in single-person households is indicative of many great societal leaps, but is it for the best, asks
Tiffany Jenkins

People seem to be choosing to live on their own rather than with others. Picture: TSPL

I came home to an empty house this week. I was met by a silence when I opened the door that was sustained throughout the evening, until I turned on the television to watch girly trash that there was no-one there to object to.

The solitude was blissful for a few days. No questions were aired when I went out about when I was going to be back, or if I could pick something up from the shop, and I was able to retire to an empty bed reserved just for me.

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It reminded me of my late twenties (without the hangovers); that time in life when you have moved on from living in a flat with friends, to living with no-one and not much else except an empty fridge. Admittedly, it got a bit too quiet after a while. And rather untidy, if I am honest.

A significant number of people now live on their own out of choice. In the past, most people got married, had kids and spent the rest of their lives together. If they divorced, they often married again.

But during the past half-century there has been a major change in the way people organise their lives. Greater numbers of people – at all ages, in all places – are doing a Greta Garbo, declaring: “I want to be alone, I just want to be alone.”

The number of people living alone has more than doubled in 40 years, a change that has taken place with no law, policy, or campaign to urge it along.

In little over four decades, the number of single households has more than doubled in the UK and currently stands at 8.7 million adults, compared with 3.8 million in 1974.

It’s a global trend. According to market intelligence firm Euromonitor International, across the world there has been an increase in single living of about 80 per cent, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011. Sweden has more people living on their own than anywhere else in the world – 47 per cent of households have just one resident, followed by Norway with 40 per cent. In Japan, where social life was once organised around the family, about 30 per cent of households are limited to one.

Whichever country we are talking about, the rise of single living is more pronounced in urban centres.

It’s a big change in a short amount of time, for which there appears to be a number of reasons, both positive and negative.

When it comes to the young – those in their twenties and early thirties – people are taking much longer to settle down. Research suggests young adults are likely to spend 15 years living alone.

But it’s also interesting to note that biggest rise in people living on their own is among the 35 to 44 age group. In the UK, they now account for 1.2 million single households, compared with 148,000 in 1974.

Money is one of the most significant factors influencing the decisions people make – what they can and cannot afford.

And it’s costly to be on your tod. Housing costs are considerable, as are council tax and utility bills. On average, solo dwellers spend £2,000 a year more than couples on household bills.

So a general rise in prosperity must have helped. It remains to be seen what impact austerity will have. Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, suggests that the trend for solo living has sprung from a number of changes that include increasing longevity, urbanisation, and women’s liberation.

An encouraging factor, then, is female independence. That is, more women are working and earning enough not to need someone else to support them.

There has been a critical response to these changes. Commentators have been quick to cite the perils of living in solitary splendour. Single women in particular have attracted opprobrium, even though plenty of men live on their own too. These female singletons, it is often said, are selfish, and will regret having left it too late to settle down. It would seem that certain parts of society are uncomfortable with the idea that girls might just do everything for themselves, even if common cultural characterisations have moved on from those of the spinster or old maid.

Even the fabulous Sex and the City, which was responding to the phenomena of the independent single woman, had them hankering after the happy-ever-after and partnered up in the end. Bridget Jones, that most well-known of singletons, who worried that she would die fat and alone, found three weeks later half-eaten by Alsatians, was viewed with amused pity when she was almost left on the shelf.

It is not all cause for celebration. The increase in solo living has occurred during a period in which there has been what the American social critic Christopher Lasch described as a “thorough-going disenchantment with personal relations”.

Lasch argued that intimacy was increasingly seen as risky and as something to be avoided. This cultural cooling of our feelings about love is a worrying development and may also be an unfortunate factor in the rise of solo living.

It’s all very well to opt out of old arrangements, old institutions, but it’s not clear what opting in to being on your own means, what one is committed too, if it is more a consequence of atomisation and fear of others, than of freedom. The expansion of choice, and the possibility of not doing the traditional thing, if that is what this is, is a change for the good, but questions remain about what it means when so many people all over the world want to live apart.

And there are advantages to living with each other – not just the fact that there are others with whom to share the bills and who will take out the bins – but commitment to one another and the sharing of the mundane and boring times, as much as the exciting ones, which is a wonderful thing.

It is great that we are freer than ever to choose how we live, but I cannot help but think that it would be better if we chose to do it together.