To celebrate International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019

Women living alone today are breaking the social stereotype mould. But can this continue in the UK?

For International Women’s Day my blog this week focuses on and celebrates the fact that, in 2019, more and more women in western society are able to enjoy the freedom and choice to live alone. This is consistent with the increasing recognition of female equality in so many spheres of modern life. But I also fear that socio/economic trends in the UK threaten the idea that the same number or more of women here, will be in such a position in the future.

The 21st century is the age of living single, according to US social scientist Dr Bella DePaulo. But despite more people choosing to stay single for longer, or for life, Dr DePaulo says single people, particularly single women, continue to be stereotyped as sad, lonely spinsters: even the adored Jennifer Aniston couldn’t escape the wholly derogatory label of ‘spinster’! But Dr DePaulo says studies of single people showed the stereotypes did not stack up: “It turns out that just about all of these stereotypes about single people, that are so widely shared, are either grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong.”

De Paulo especially debunks myths surrounding marriage, saying, “… the most recent studies are showing that when people get married they don’t get any healthier at all … and they are just as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.” A 2017 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found older women who go through a divorce or separation are more likely to experience positive changes in their health. Other research has also shown women are happier than men being single.

In today’s society, as well as the lifelong singletons, women commonly find themselves living alone as a result of the breakdown of a marriage or partnership, or the death of a spouse. These changes can happen to any of us at any age or stage of our lives – and we appear to get on with it, regardless of whether or not we chose to put ourselves in that position.

Living alone is on the increase for women and for many it is a choice. The latest UK data shows that 54% of the 7.7 million people in single-person households are women. A 53% increase between 1996 and 2017 in the number of single-person households in the 45-64 age group, is attributed in part to the increase in population numbers for this age group, and also the increase in the proportion in this age group who are divorced, separated or single-never-married.

In a previous blog I’ve recalled the reasons why I chose to live alone when I was in my late twenties: I wanted “ … to buy my own home… to be able to dance to a new rhythm, the new tune in my head. I wanted to ‘find my own feet’, ‘live in my own space’ and, of course, ‘find myself.’” I think many young people, women and men, who live in modern western society, will identify with this. I cannot, however, speak for the millions of young women across the globe living under the law of a repressive, religious or political regime.

Today in the UK, there is evidence that socio-economic conditions mean that for many young people, dreams and goals such as those I had, are merely pipe-dreams: the latest data for 16 to 24 year olds living in single-person households is lower in 2017 than in 1996, attributed to the increase in the number of young (boomerang) adults who live with their parents.

This a well-documented modern trend caused by a combination of factors including student loan debt (a burden both if you can or can’t repay it); the low-wage economy and the rising costs of home ownership and rent for a single wage-earner looking to live alone. Some young people are lucky to have the bank of mum and dad to help with the upfront costs of buying or renting. But even then, they are often forced to take in lodgers/ rental flatmates to meet ongoing costs. Even on the first rung of the property ladder, the opportunity to choose to live alone for today’s young men and women is not the same as for my generation.

The reduction in the numbers of single-person households for the 16 to 24 age group is therefore in stark contrast to the massive (53%) increase in single-person households in the 45 to 64 age group. I suspect that the women, as well as men, in the older age group were on the property ladder in their own right if single, or jointly through marriage/partnership. I fear that the women in that 16 to 24 age group are the start of a trend, whereby upcoming generations of women, in the UK at least, may not be able to afford to live alone unless socio-economic factors change.

In the not too distant future, it might be possible to look back on a period in our recent history as a Golden Age of female independence and autonomy: when women in the UK had the freedom to choose, and the income to afford, to live alone. When all they had to overcome was outmoded stereotyping in a couple-centred society. Then get on with a happy, successful and fulfilled life: a solo life of choice.