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How many people are single?

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.

Single and Married UK

Single people UK

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.

Families UK

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.

Single People UK 2015

how many single people UK

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’

I guess I’ve got to at least mention Facebook….. According to ‘statistics brain‘, 37% of people report their relationship status as single on Facebook.

Facebook relationships

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 its 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.

single people UK 2017

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%. 

Further Reading…..

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.

 

 

 

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Sociological Perspectives on Single Person Households

Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone? (Scroll down for a video summary)

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

A review of the trends in Single Person Households

  • 29% of UK Households are single person households. 

single people UK

  • 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

A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg

single person householdsKlinenberg 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.

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

Klinenberg suggests four reasons…

  1. The 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.

Video version of some the above.

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.

 
Questions 

  • 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?

Related Posts

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