Last Updated on August 20, 2021 by Karl Thompson
According to the Office for National Statistics, for the population in England Wales aged 16 and over, as of 2015
- there are 16 million people aged 16 or over who are ‘single and have never cohabited or married’, equivalent to 34.5% of the adult population.
- there are 19.8 million people ‘not living as a couple’, equivalent to 39% of the adult population.
The problem with these statistics is that they do not actually tell us how many ‘single’ people there are in England and Wales (let alone the United Kingdom) – at least not if we take the commonly accepted definition of a single person as ‘someone who is unmarried or not involved in a stable sexual relationship’.
Below I explore why I think there are way less single people in the country than these official statistics suggest…
Single people never cohabited or married
There are 16 million people who are ‘single and never cohabited or married’, equivalent to 34.5% of the population aged over 16 in England and Wales, at least according to Office for National Statistics, 2015 data.
However, while it is interesting to know how many people are ‘single, and have never married or cohabited’, this isn’t the same as the number of people who are actually single, for the following reasons:
- Firstly, and probably most obviously, this system of categorization does not tell us the proportion of divorced or widowed people who not married but are in relationships, and thus not single. (Some of these will be cohabiting as if married of course, so in ‘highly committed relationships!)
- Secondly, it doesn’t tell us how many people who are ‘single and never cohabited or married’ are in committed relationships, and hence not actually single.
- Thirdly, it doesn’t tell us how many ‘married’ people are in empty shell marriages, and thus single in a sense.
NB – the above data came from the Labour Force Survey, which gleans its information about relationship status from a series of interview questions – questions which will in no way tell us how many actual single people there are in the U.K. – this particular question is only really only useful for telling us the number of married people or in a formal civil partnership and cannot tell us very much about the relationship status of the non-married/ civil partnership people.
In fairness to LFS, it does go on to ask whether people are ‘cohabiting’, the results for which are shown below…
People ‘not living as a couple’
A second possible way of measuring the number of single people in the country, again taken from ONS Labour Force Survey data, is to look at ‘living arrangements’ – and here we find that approximately 39% of the population are not living as a couple, while 61% are living as a couple.
I’d say this is a more valid way of measuring the number of single people in the country because it includes a clear indication that 61% of the population are either married or cohabiting, rather than just the number of people who are ‘married’ like in the first data set. However, it still does not tell us how many single people there are in the country, because some proportion of people not living as a couple will still be in committed relationships, but the data does not tell us this!
We are thus forced to look elsewhere to find out how many actual single people there are in the country….
Other sources of data about ‘single people’
However, this data has validity problems because:
- I don’t have access to the methodology used, no details are provided.
- This probably isn’t from the UK.
- According to this New Statesman article, 40% of 20 somethings are reluctant to report themselves as ‘in a relationship’ on Facebook unless it is an engagement.
This 2017 Statista survey reports that around 27% of the UK population aged 40 to 70 reported that they were single, not currently in a relationship.
While I’m inclined to intuit that this is a valid figure, unfortunately I’m not in a position to objectively validate the findings because I ain’t prepared to pay the subscription fee to gain the access required to get the information on sampling techniques (if they even exist in any meaningful sense because this was an online survey!)
Having said that, the above data is broadly backed up by this 2014 YouGov Poll which reports that 30% of the UK population are single (although the analysis doesn’t go into any detail about this aspect of the poll, limiting itself to how people who are in relationships feel about each other).
Personally I think this 30% figure sounds about right, given that the numbers of single people in their 20s and 30s will probably be higher than those in the their 40s-70s, you’d expect the later percentage to be slightly higher than the Statista results, so it triangulates nicely.
So…. how many people are single in the UK? About 30%.
Signposting and Related Posts
This topic is usually taught as part of the families and households module in the first year of A-level Sociology, and is part of the ‘family-diversity’ subtopic.
It may seem odd studying single people in a module on the family, but the simply fact is that declining marriage and increasing divorce mean that more people stay single for more of their lives than ever before!
This Enduring Love Study might be of interest.
Postscript – Fantasy reporting on the geographic distribution of single people
Heads up on click-bait lists like this from The Independent which show you the ‘cities with the most single people in’ – here are the results:
The percentages above are for people who are ‘single and never married’, the problem is that most of these are university towns…. where lots of young people live, most of whom will move on to another city once they’ve graduated, and to my mind to get a realistic picture of how ‘committed to single life’ a city’s population is, you’d need to control for age, and how long they intend to stay in that city. It’s sort or ironic, somehow, that geographical instability (most students only intend to reside in their university town temporarily) skews the figures on how many people are not in a stable relationship (i.e. single).
Then of course, as I mentioned above, many of these people will actually be in committed relationships.