‘Living on my own’: The Single-Person Household

Recently released information from the 2011 Census in Scotland reveals that for the first time since records began single-person households represent the largest household form.  These accounted for 35% of all households in Scotland. When the figures are broken down geographically we find that in Glasgow, for example, that figure is even higher at 43%.[1]

What should we make of the rise in single-person households?  In 1961 only 14% of households in Scotland were of this formation. Has Scotland become a lonelier place as suggested by the Daily Express? [2]  If we simply examine numbers then perhaps the rise in people living alone does suggest that we are living more and more isolated lives, especially in the larger cities of the nation. However, it is crucial to examine such information critically and within an historical context.

Historical demographers stress the statistical dominance of the nuclear family since at least the early modern period.  Our research is questioning the predominance of nuclear or extended units based around a married couple and their children.  Our research to date suggests that married couple households were not necessarily the norm during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is certainly true that single-person households were in the minority but the reasons behind this are important. During this period it was economically unviable for the majority to live alone and with the absence of social housing most adult single people could be found living with family or with non-related households as boarders or lodgers. For example, in Govan, Scotland’s third largest parish, between one half and one third of households kept lodgers or boarders. In effect, such arrangements masked the true number of single people no longer living within the family home. Due to the cyclical nature of unemployment, housing shortages and low wages single people could ill afford to live independently.

These realities hint at some of the reasons why we have seen a rise in single-person households over the past couple of decades. More disaggregation of the statistics might tell us that the largest group of those single-person households consists of the elderly. With people living longer and more healthily and the baby boomer generation still to make their impact on the demographics of aging, undoubtedly there will be more elderly living alone.  Welfare and social reforms have also enabled people such as the divorced, the deserted, and the separated to live alone. Economic independence has enabled single people to live alone, as has the rise in the availability of social housing. But are they ‘lonely’? Many of those people may very well be in relationships; we have seen the rise in couples ‘living apart together’, no less monogamous than their parents but being equipped with the necessary economic powers to determine when they will ‘settle down’ in a joint household. (Additionally, being single does not necessarily equate to being lonely).

Will this rise in single-person households continue? We are currently experiencing a period of economic uncertainty, with wages freezes and cuts, measures of austerity, and welfare cuts (especially Housing Benefit). These are similar economic conditions to those which limited the numbers of single-person households in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, we might see over the next few years a reduction in the number of single-person households. Only time will tell.

Listen to the BBC Radio Scotland interview with Dr Annmarie Hughes here

[1] Census 2011: Population Estimates for Scotland, http://scotlandcensus.gov.uk/en/news/articles/release1b.html, accessed 25/03/2013

[2] Dean Herbert, ‘Lonelier and Older- that’s Scotland today’, http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/385994/Lonelier-and-older-that-s-Scotland-today, accessed 25/03/2013

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