Why you should care
Because flying solo may be a positive indicator.
Maybe this is your nightmare: You return from your job every night to an empty apartment, cold and echoey. After you suddenly die — this is a nightmare, remember, it isn’t necessarily going to happen — your cat eats your face. Unless you don’t have a cat, in which case the ghost of your apartment’s previous inhabitant (and the ghost of his cat) eats your face.
Even though it may not feel like it for young people living in American cities, squeezed into ever-smaller rooms in ever-larger group houses, single-person households are on the rise. And in some places, they’re taking over:
In Sweden, 52 percent of all households have just one person in them.
The figures don’t mention cats or ghosts. But other Nordic countries surveyed aren’t far behind: More than 40 percent of homes in Denmark and Finland have just a single inhabitant. And while that may seem lonely to those of us used to bustling living spaces, it also offers a kind of freedom.
“The conversation is focused on this idea that if people live alone, the social fabric has broken down, that people don’t care for their elderly parents anymore or they don’t form relationships anymore, and I don’t think that’s true at all,” says Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything. “A lot of people enjoy that freedom to be able to have their own peace, their own space. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to see their family!”
People living alone could become an important demographic — and one that politicians and policies will find themselves having to cater to …
Partanen points out that in Nordic countries, with their unusually high levels of state support, more people are able to live alone if they want to — and that young people might live alone more often in other countries if it were financially viable. In the U.S., just 28 percent of households contain only one person, but that proportion has more than doubled since 1960 — as it has in Australia, Canada and even China, which has 66 million one-person households (though that’s a relatively paltry 15 percent overall and is largely due to China’s huge population).
Demographic studies attribute the change to increased longevity, meaning some older people outlive their spouses; burgeoning independence for women, who are now more likely to be able to afford a home of their own and stay single longer; and a jump in migration, which means families are often too spread out to live together. There’s also the most basic reason: Many people have more money and are more likely to be able to pay rent on their own.
As the number of one-person households rises, it’ll mean adjustments around the world: Nordic countries already offer lots of support to the elderly, and other nations may find that single retired people were not able to save enough. It also means that people living alone could become an important demographic — and one that politicians and policies will find themselves having to cater to the way they’ve long catered to families.