October 29, 2005


One-third of Scotts will live alone by 2021

A story published today in The Scotsman says that for most of us, the phrase Home Alone conjures up an image of a fresh-faced Macaulay Culkin creating mayhem in his family home, having been abandoned for Christmas. If you are a sociologist, the phrase is likely to provoke quite a different reaction. Your eyes will light up, you'll grapple for research papers and won't be able to contain your enthusiasm. In sociological circles, being home alone is a hot topic.

By 2021, it is estimated, more than a third of the population will live in single-person households. Chances are you might be one of these people already. In 1971, just 5 per cent of 16-59 year-olds lived alone, but by 2002, that figure had more than trebled. Here in Scotland, we are above the UK average, with 18 per cent of us flying solo. A survey this week said Glasgow had the second highest proportion of singletons (after London), with Dundee at No 5 and Aberdeen at No 7.

It is not unusual for there to be a high incidence of retired people living alone, but it's the increase in the living arrangements of the under-60s that's raising eyebrows. There is plenty of speculation as to why this is the case. Some point at the decline in the whole idea of marriage or steady relationships or to the Bridget Jones generation; the young women too busy climbing the career ladder and contributing to Chardonnay sales to sensibly settle down and focus on improving the nation's fertility rate.

And perhaps too many men are revelling in a prolonged adolescence, refusing to swap their Diesel jeans for a nice Jaeger suit. Or is it the cult of isolation? Do we all want to live in little boxes disconnected from the outside world? It is certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to 30-somethings. What about all those "empty nesters" who run off in search of a new partner and exotic holidays as soon as their children have flown? Each of the easy conclusions we can jump to about solo living has a grain of truth, but they don't tell us the whole story.

Earlier this year, a team from the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh published its findings into a study of solo living. The Centre's co-director, Dr Fran Wasoff, says there are several factors which contribute towards the trend. "One is the greater frequency of relationship transition - people cohabit or marry, they separate, they live on their own for a while and then they may form other relationships," she says. "Then there is the fact that some women's incomes have gone up to a sufficient extent that they can afford to live alone."

Dr Wasoff points out that for women in particular, social attitudes have changed, meaning that living alone is a more acceptable choice in the public eye. All the studies into solo living make an important point - just because you're living alone doesn't mean you're single. "We call this group 'Living Apart Togethers'," she says. "The fact that people are living alone doesn't have to imply they have no close partnership."

While census data can tell us how many people are living alone, it doesn't always pinpoint the reasons. But the latest research contained in the Unilever Family Report 2005 goes a long way towards solving the mysteries.

The report highlights living alone as a new rite of passage, a positive choice which should be celebrated. 96 per cent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed that it was good to live on your own before settling down.

Miranda Lewis, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and author of the report, says they were able to debunk some commonly held stereotypes about living alone. "It's not just a middle-class thing: it's quite polarised. You've got people with a high income but also people at the other end of the scale who find it pretty tough."

As for the idea that solo living leaves you cut off from society, Ms Lewis found the opposite to be true. "People who live alone often have strong relationships not just with friends but also with family," she says. "But they really enjoy the independence of living alone."

In fact, research into living along has revealed some major differences between the sexes. Bridget is well-established, but what about Brad Jones? The greatest increase in the number of single person households has been among men under 65. But according to the Unilever report, men generally find living alone harder and are less likely to actively choose it. Women are more likely to see friends and family more frequently as a result of living alone whereas more men (56 per cent) say they are sometimes lonely.

In one sense, the trend for solo living ties in very clearly with relationship break-ups. Professor Malcolm Williams of the University of Plymouth has researched the trend and says: "Between ages 25 and 44, more men lived alone than women, but between 55 and 64, more women lived alone.

"What seems to be happening with the men is that they're leaving the nuclear family when relationships break down, and they're going to live alone, and often the women stays with the children. But then she's living alone after the kids have grown up."

He says this phenomenon is being seen throughout Europe and, rather than panicking about it, we should accept that social change has always happened.

Dr Wasoff says the trend for solo living is both a positive and a negative story. For those actively choosing to embrace their independence it's a lifestyle choice that offers lots of benefits. But there are others for whom living alone is the result of circumstance, rather than choice.

Money can be a big downer if you're living alone. Mortgage or rent and bills don't get split in half and all those two-for-one supermarket offers have less attraction. Then there's the fact that you're more likely to go out socialising than couples. Mintel research showed that people living alone are more likely to go out and spend more on alcohol and communications.

Looking at the wider picture, the rise in solo living has implications for the country as a whole - in terms of the demand on housing stock and also in an environmental sense, as domestic energy use is likely to increase. And who looks after single people when they get ill? It's another gap in the research. "I think we do have a problem here," says Cary Cooper, Professor of Psychology and Health at Lancaster University. "People are working the longest hours in Europe but often they're not earning enough to actually buy property. They have less job security, less chance to meet people and for the 20-somethings, 40 per cent of them will have had parents who divorced. All of this means they're worried about getting into a long-term relationship."

Whether solo living is down to economic instability or is a fun-filled rite of passage, it's manna from heaven for advertisers. Be it ready meals or holidays for singles, a whole new market is opening up. "If you look at adverts for things like soap powders, it's all about families," says Malcolm Williams. "But if you actually look at the breakdown in household types, nuclear families are getting smaller and smaller."

Solo living is a trend that's here to stay. For some it's a long-term arrangement that suits them well, while others see it as temporary. Miranda Lewis's research showed that most people think they won't be alone forever. But they're enjoying it while it lasts.

Why single-minded Scots are choosing the city life

THERE are several reasons why you might want to live in an area with lots of single people.

You might be looking for a partner. You might just have split up with a partner and can't bear the thought of living in suburbia, surrounded by couples. Or maybe you just like being near other people for whom being single is the norm rather than the exception.

Whatever your reason, Scotland's 2001 Census threw up a few clues as to where to start house hunting.

On average (and not including pensioners who seemingly might skew the results), 17.9 per cent of households in Scotland are composed of just one person. As you might expect, the above-average figures exist in the cities - namely Glasgow with 25.95 per cent, Aberdeen with 24.23 per cent and Edinburgh with 23.09 per cent.

A few commuter belt regions also score high, with Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire all coming in above average. But what a difference a boundary line makes. Leap over to East Dunbartonshire and the figure slumps to 11.17 per cent. For the purpose of the census, "singles" are defined as people who have never been married. Again it's Glasgow which tops the list with a whopping 41.9 per cent of the population aged 16-plus never having walked down the aisle, closely followed by Edinburgh at 40.19 per cent. Aberdeen and Dundee also offer good prospects, while rural areas fare less well. The lowest number of singles are in Aberdeenshire at 23.8 per cent, with the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway not much higher.

The census also reported on the numbers of people "living as couples" or "not a couple". The 25-34 age group was by far the largest age group not to be living in domestic bliss.

While many parts of Scotland showed an even split on the couple question for this age group, the Glasgow figures weighed in favour of the singles with 57 per cent of both men and women declaring themselves not to be living as half of a couple. So the message is if you want to surround yourself with single people, move to a city... preferably Glasgow.