Home alone

The young may be single, but does that make them free?

James Harkin

Topics Politics

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It had to happen – but nobody in New York could have imagined that it would strike so close to home.

According to a survey published in New York magazine in February 2002, single men and women in the city are turning their backs on one-night stands in search of something more profound. In the writhing metropolis that spawned the programme Sex and the City, not only are fewer singles sleeping around, but the numbers looking for a serious partner have jumped: a full 46 percent of single New Yorkers admitted that they were more interested in finding a serious relationship than they were before 11 September (1).

So singlehood is out, then, and marriage is the new in? Not quite.

Just two years ago, the American Census Bureau reported that for the first time single-person households in the USA outnumbered married families with children. Here in Britain, a major survey published by the Office for National Statistics hit the headlines in December 2001 with its discovery that, between 1971 and 2000, the proportion of one-person households in the UK had almost doubled from 17 percent to 32 percent (2).

According to another survey published by the Abbey National bank in the middle of January 2002, there are just 6.5million people in the UK living in a traditional nuclear family of parents and children – a figure now lower than the number of single-person households (3).

Young urban singles may well be jaded with the single life, but they show no signs of getting hitched anytime soon. In 1999 there were just over 7million single person households in the UK; by 2003, according to researchers at the retail analysts Mintel, this will have risen by more than 17 percent to 8.28million (4).

Britain Towards 2010, an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) report also published in 1999, argued that some 40 percent of households will belong to ‘home alone’ single people by the year 2010. By that date, according to the ESRC, ‘single person households will be the predominant household type – accounting for almost 40 percent of households’. ‘Traditional family forms’, the ESRC report continued, ‘will no longer be the “foundation” of society. More of the population will live alone in single person households’.

The factors that are fuelling the growth of single person households are complex, and show no signs of going away. Increased life expectancy has led to growing numbers of people over 65 who are widowed and living alone, and a rising divorce rate has resulted in larger numbers of middle-aged men and women who are also living on their own (the so-called ‘seasoned singles’). But at the vanguard of the movement towards single living are young, middle-class and relatively highly paid urban professionals.

Single living, according to the ESRC, will by the year 2010 be most visible among those of younger middle-age. It is those who are now in their late twenties or early thirties who are predicted to want to go it alone.

The growth of single living in the twenty-first century is bringing with it a reorientation of retail and its associated industries of advertising, marketing and branding. No longer a stop-gap, supermarket ‘meals-for-one’ are already bought by singletons at a considerable premium: they come lovingly packaged with the finest ingredients and serving suggestions, are branded as a well-deserved treat for the busy singleton – and make the family meal look pale and spartan by comparison.

The trend towards single living is also having its effect on the urban landscape. The ESRC estimates that between 4.4million and 5.5million new homes will be needed in the UK by 2015 to accommodate the singletons. In the absence of those homes being built – figures released in January 2002 by the UK government show that the numbers of new homes being built in Britain has plunged to its lowest peacetime level for 77 years (5) – the growth in single living will do more to buoy up property prices in the long term than any short-term tinkering with interest rates.

The female embrace of singlehood might be thought to be the logical result of the expanding possibilities and growing financial independence of the modern woman. But the rise of the singleton masks a number of distinct trends, developments that are only accessible when we inquire into the values of the singletons themselves.

Media coverage of the trend towards singlehood was recently given a push by the publication in the USA of Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s sociological tome Bowling Alone (6). Bowling Alone is a mine of statistics that record the slow decline of the informal social institutions in the USA – churches, local political organisations, family, friends and neighbours – which have held America together. Putnam finds, for example, that Americans used to invite friends to their home 14 times a year in the late 1970s, whereas now they only do so about eight times a year.

The result is a magisterial work of empirical social science which succeeds in proving his hypothesis beyond all doubt: that Americans have, in the course of the past 30 years, slowly become a nation of loners.

Putnam takes the long view, and his book is written as a response to criticisms of a hypothesis that he first presented back in 1995. His work in documenting long-standing processes of social disaggregation might explain the decline of the tired old institutional division of labour within the marriage contract.

But any explanation of the vogue for singlehood needs to do more than that. What remains to be understood is why a whole generation remains suspended in a state of singlehood, and has failed to find a contemporary vehicle for equal and lasting relationships.

It is not that the singletons are missing out on sex or even on relationships. The 1999 Mintel survey finds that relatively few people living alone are content with celibacy; according to Mintel, only 16 percent of single males and 26 percent of single females who live alone say they have not had a relationship in the past five years. If anything, singletons are all too keen to claim vigorous and fulfilled sex lives.

Asked by a recent Time/CNN poll what they missed most from married life last year, 75 percent of American singletons mentioned companionship, while only four percent mentioned sex. While it is unlikely that singletons are having as much sex as those in couples, what they do have is greater variety; but that variety may well come at the expense of intensity and intimacy.

What such patterns reflect, according to the ESRC, is greater individual freedom and choice. ‘Couple relationships’, its report on Britain in 2010 concludes, ‘are likely to continue to be transient for a growing percentage of the adult population’. Where once couplehood was the norm and singleness a ‘frictional’ state between relationships, the ESRC points up a bizarre inversion for both sexes, in which the institution of couplehood appears to be becoming the interlude – a pleasurable but easily disposable experience – before its occupants revert to the default state of single living.

Like the insecure and often flimsy temporary jobs that they often occupy, singletons appear to have accommodated themselves to flexible and temporary relationships: and to have convinced themselves that they are getting in the deal.

Despite media representations of the joys of single living in programmes like Sex and the City, most young singles do aspire to the romantic ideal of a lasting relationship. It is just that they are balancing that aspiration against other considerations. And chief among those considerations is a highly rarefied commitment to their health and wellbeing. A different survey by Mintel in 1999 found that single men in the under-35 age group were more likely than those who live with others to take part in sport and/or exercise: even then, the survey reported, ‘they are more likely to be dissatisfied with the amount of exercise they do’.

Another survey of young British women, conducted by Microsoft in April 2001, discovered a rash of real world Bridget Joneses neurotically concerned with their health, weight and appearance. Just over half of the 1500 young women surveyed admitted to obsessing about their weight, while a fifth were permanently unhappy about the state of their bodies.

Singletons, then, show the same commitment to the virtues of self-preservation as prisoners in the exercise yard. They also appear to harbour an irrational fear of the harmful effects that result from prolonged exposure to other people. Mintel’s surveyors found that the event which females most associate with a stressful lifestyle – even more than having a child – would be moving in with a partner. They also discovered that the image of the neglected bachelor pad is now no more than a media fiction.

Young men who live alone, Mintel found, are more home-orientated than those who live as part of a couple; they are also more inclined to spend their leisure time at home experimenting with recipes, fretting about their appearance and prioritising minor home improvements.

The vogue for single living among young professionals is best seen, not as a gender issue, but as evidence of a much more general development: that the idea of privacy as freedom from state interference is increasingly being redefined by singletons to mean freedom from the demands made by other people. For the singletons, maintaining a close relationship with a partner might interfere with time spent working out in the gym or ‘chilling’ in the company of a couple of joss-sticks and the therapeutic sound of whale music.

The author of the ESRC report, Professor Richard Scase, has estimated that within five years, one in five single people in the UK will be using the internet to find a partner (7). But for this cohort, online dating may be popular only because it is seen as less threatening and less complicated than old-fashioned social interaction. Even the urban rejuvenation that single living promises will come at a price: according to the ESRC report, ‘businesses associated with the lifestyles of single people (particularly on matters of personal security) will increase…and housing developments are likely to incorporate video surveillance’. An obsession with privacy and personal security will surely stifle the singletons’ lives, and have broader implications for the social fabric of life in the coming decades.

Nobody anymore is trying to force people back into the claustrophobia of a dull marriage. But the neurotic protection of one’s personal space and one’s fragile equilibrium speaks ill of a society that is supposed to nourish individual values, and suggests that those people have been liberated into an impoverished form of freedom. Barricaded inside their bijou little bed-sits and cosy one-bed flats, today’s singletons know their enemy and have already issued their call to arms: ‘no pasáran.’

Read on:

Wedding stress, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Love and sex

Singleton society, by Frank Furedi

(1) See Serious Fun, New York Metro, 11 July 2002

(2) See Living in Britain – the 2000 General Household Survey, Office of National Statistics

(3) From ‘The changing face of UK families’, a survey by the Future Foundation on behalf of Abbey National. See the Future Foundation press release

(4) Britain towards 2010: the changing business environment, ESCR

(5) See New Slump in Housing Completions, a press release and comment from the UK Householders Federation

(6) Buy Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American Community by Robert D Putnam at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) See Couples take just five dates to have sex, Ananova, 7 November 2001

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Topics Politics


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