Last week the Office for National Statistics reported that people in Britain are more likely than ever before to live alone, with a third of households now consisting of people living alone. The figures for Scotland are even higher, with projections of more than two in five households (42%) being a one-person household by 2024. This trend reflects wider changes in families and relationships in recent decades, with the largest increase in living alone found amongst adults of working age.
Familiar representations in the media and popular culture often associate living alone with loneliness and social isolation. Remember Bridget Jones’ fears of dying alone, and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian? In academic research too, living alone may be seen as a self-evident indicator of social disintegration and declining commitment to others. Yet until recently there has been relatively little known about the lives of those living alone, while media depictions of Sex and the City-type singletons ignore the fact that men aged 25-44 are twice as likely to live alone than women of the same age. Why so little attention to these ‘Brad Joneses’?
There is a growing body of research which challenges popular stereotypes about living alone Research on solo living at CRFR shows considerable differences within this population by socio-economic circumstance, gender and locality. Living alone does not necessarily mean being unpartnered or childless: solo-livers may be in committed relationships with partners or with children living elsewhere. The differences between those who do or don’t live alone are not as great as other social differences. In terms of social involvement with family and community, there are greater differences between men and women and by age than between those living alone and with others, suggesting factors other than living arrangement are at play. While adults of working-age living alone are a diverse group, there are still commonalities: solo-livers do not benefit from the economies of scale or sharing of risks such as pension provision found in multi-person households, and the costs of solo-living are therefore higher. It also raises policy implications in terms of social care, pensions and housing provision.
More people are likely to experience a period of solo-living in the future, in part a result of changes such as postponement of and the decline in marriage and increased relationship ‘turnover’. The research to date suggests variations in how solo-living is experienced, and that living alone does not necessarily mean being alone. Whether entered into by choice or circumstance, envisaged as temporary or long-term, living alone is often depicted by solo-livers themselves as a highly valued experience, with many positive dimensions.
Roona Simpson, Research Fellow, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships
Link to CRFR Rural and Urban Solo-Living Project