This post aims to provide a mini review of a recent book by Eric Klinenberg on the rise of single person households. It is relevant to the AS Sociology families and households increasing family diversity topic.
Increasing numbers of people are living on their own in the UK.
This trend is, in fact, mirrored globally as shown by this somewhat bewildering infographic from Euromonitor
This is an extremely important social trend which presents a fundamental challenge to the centrality of the family to modern society. In the USA, the average adult will now spend more of their life unmarried than married, and single person households are one of the most common types of household. We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population.
There is often a tendency to see people living on their own as sad, lonely people who have ended up that way because of unfortunate circumstances – such as never having met ‘Mr Right’ and being desperate to do so (as in the ‘Bridget Jones’ character), or having gone through a relationship breakdown.
However, according to relatively new research from America, such stereotypes are not correct.
Eric Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing 300 single Americans who lived alone, and the general picture he got was that these people were exactly where they wanted to be – living on their own was not a transitory phase, it was a genuine life choice. On the whole, living alone is seen as a mark of social distinction, living as part of a couple is for losers.
While single by choice is very much on the up among younger people who have never settled down into a long term cohabitating relationships and have no intention of doing so, it is also the norm among older people who have come out of relationships. Where older people living alone are concerned, and these are mostly women, they are not all chasing the dwindling population of men in their age group (given the higher life expectancy for women). Most of them are in fact wary of getting involved in relationships because doing so will probably mean becoming someone’s carer (again), and similarly they are skeptical about moving back in with their children (and possibly their grand children too) because of fear that they will become an unpaid domestic and child-sitting slave.
NB, as a counter to the above, not all singles are happy about it, however. One such group consists of mainly men on low wages who are unmarriageable and live in ‘single room occupancy facilities’ often suffering from various addictions and who practice ‘defensive individualism’ in order to cope with their bleak situation.
So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?
Klinenberg provides four reasons…
Firstly the wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – Klinenberg’s basic thesis is that the rise of single living is basically just a reflection of increasing wealth. When we can afford to live alone, more of us choose to do so. We especially see this where Scandinavia is concerned, and nearly half of the adult population live alone.
Secondly, the communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of Klienenberg’s thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
Thirdly, mass urbanization – Klinenberg suggests that Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life. In short, it’s easier to connect with other singles where people live closer together.
Fourthly, increased longevity – because people are living longer than ever and because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.
Personally, I’d like to tag on a fifth…. There’s an obvious link between the increasing divorce rate and the number of Single Person Households – When people get burnt in relationships, many of them are unwilling to go back, as with the older women mentioned above.
Brief Analysis – the differential trend in solo living in the UK.
According to the info below, money seems to have an impact on the trend in solo living – the increasing trend has been driven over the last decade by older people, who can afford to live alone, while the number of 16-44 year olds going solo has actually decreased…. It looks like this trend is set to falter, and possibly mainly due to economic reasons!
How can you use this information?
Firstly, it’s directly relevant to the ‘reasons for the increase in single person households’ topic (obviously), part of the AS Sociology families and households diversity in family life aspect of the course.
Secondly, you could also use it to criticise The Functionalist Perspective on the importance of the nuclear family – the rise of single living is hardly resulting in social collapse!
Thirdly, it’s a nice example of how in-depth qualitative data generated from interviews can challenge media stereotypes about singledome, and add some flesh onto some dry statistics.