Sociological Perspectives on Single Person Households

people increasingly choose to live alone because of increased wealth, urbanisation, improved communications and living longer

Last Updated on July 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone?

People increasingly choose to live alone because of:

  1. Increasing wealth: people in wealthier countries are more likely to choose to live alone.
  2. Improved communications: makes it easier for solo-livers to keep in contact with friends and family while living alone.
  3. Mass urbanisation: higher density populations = easier to connect with other people.
  4. Increased longevity: following a relationship ending or one partner dying, there is less desire to pair-up again!

According to a recent book by Eric Klinenberg (2013) Explaining the Rise of Solo Living (1), this is a global phenomenon and mainly reflects the increasing degree of individual choice that comes with increasing wealth.

Global trends in single person households

The percentage of one person households has increased in many countries since the 1960s and since the year 2000, although there is a lot of variation by country.

In America the number of single person households has doubled since. the1960s, with 28% of households having only one person in them in 2018.

The countries with the highest levels of people living on their own are in Northern Europe. In Germany, for example, more than 40% of households. are single person households. (2)

Single Person Households in the UK

In 2022, 30% of households in the UK were single person households, this is a very slight increase since 2012.

bar chart showing percentage of one person and family households UK 2022.

Living alone: younger men and older women

There has been a change in the proportion of men and women living alone by age over the last decade. In 2022 the relative percentages are as follows:

Percentages of single person households by age, 2022 U.K.

A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg

Going Solo Klinenberg cover

Klinenberg argues that the rise of solo living 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.

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 cohabiting 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 grandchildren 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.

Why are more people living alone?

So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?

Klinenberg suggests four reasons…

  1. The increased wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – the 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.
  2. The communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of his thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Discussion questions 

In the video below, Wayne discusses his motivations for ‘going solo’ with his friend Archie, and together they explore some of the reasons for the increase in single person households.

  • To what extent do you think Kleinberg’s findings apply to the increase in Solo Living in the UK?
  • What other ‘deeper’ Sociological reasons might explain the increase in Solo Living?
  • Do you agree that the rise of Solo Living challenges the centrality of the family in modern society?

Historical data (on single person households)

single people UK pie chart

Most people who live alone are 65+ and increasing numbers of those aged 45-60 are living alone. However, the numbers of younger people living alone are declining (so Wayne in the video above is actually wrong when he says solo living is on the increase among younger people!)

solo living UK
Signposting and Related Posts

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

Explaining the reasons for the increase in family diversity (explores further reasons for the increase in single person households and other ‘family’ types).

(1) Klinenberg’s Book on Amazon.

(2) Our World in Data: People Living Alone.

(3) ONS (2021, see also 2022) Families and Households in the UK.

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