Nearly 30 percent of American households comprise a single person, a record high.
Scholars say living alone is not a trend so much as a transformation: Across much of the world, large numbers of people are living alone for the first time in recorded history.
“It’s just a stunning social change,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University and author of the book “Going Solo.” “I came to see it as the biggest demographic change in the last century that we failed to recognize and take seriously.”
Homo sapiens is a social animal. Historians tapped ancient census rolls to show that our species has lived in groups for as long as such records have existed, stretching back at least to 1600.
The U.S. Census shows that “solitaries” made up 8 percent of all households in 1940. The share of solo households doubled to 18 percent in 1970 and more than tripled, to an estimated 29 percent, by 2022.
The solo-living movement intersects with several other societal trends. Americans are marrying later, if at all. The nation is aging. The national birthrate is falling. People are living longer — or they were, until the pandemic arrived.
More than anything, perhaps, the rise of single-person households is about women entering the workforce and achieving economic self-sufficiency. The share of adult women participating in the labor force reached 50 percent around 1980.
Historically speaking, “you don’t really see people living alone until women have control of their own lives and their own bodies,” Klinenberg said.
Does the rising population of solitaries signal a bold new age of independence and self-governance, or the end of human society as we know it? Maybe a little of both, experts say.
“Living alone can be a dream come true,” said Bella DePaulo, author of the forthcoming book “Single at Heart.”
Solitary living means “you get to curate your own life,” she said. “You decide when to go to sleep and when to get up, what and when to eat, what to watch or to listen to for entertainment, and how warm or cool your place will be.” No more fighting over the thermostat.
Other researchers see a marked downside to living alone, especially for older Americans, for people who live outside thickly settled cities and for pretty much anyone who is not alone by choice.
A New York Times report on aging solitaries concluded that, “while many people in their 50s and 60s thrive living solo, research is unequivocal that people aging alone experience worse physical and mental health outcomes and shorter life spans.”
The nation’s declining birth rate and aging population portend a time when America doesn’t have enough working-age citizens to sustain the national economy or to support the spiraling health care needs of its oldest citizens. The rise of single-person households can be seen as both a cause and effect of those challenges.
“I think it’s something we should be worried about,” said Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, a conservative thinktank. “If we have fewer and fewer children, that means we have fewer people to work, to be consumers, to pay taxes.”
Wang notes that low fertility rates are a global problem. Indeed, solo households are far more common across much of Europe than in the United States. According to United Nations data, solitaries make up 39 percent of households in Denmark, 45 percent in Finland, 42 percent in Germany, 38 percent in the Netherlands, 39 percent in Norway and 40 percent in Sweden.
Even now, living alone is not quite so common in the United States as the data suggest. While nearly 30 percent of households comprise a single person, far fewer than 30 percent of Americans live in them.
Roughly 13 percent of American adults live alone, research shows. Breaking down that figure by age groups, the population of solitaries rises from 4 percent of adults at ages 18-24 to 9 percent at 25-34, dips to 8 percent at 35-44, then rises again, to 12 percent at 45-54, 17 percent at 55-64 and 26 percent at 65 and up.
Living alone is much more common in large cities. Singles now make up more than 40 percent of households in Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Denver, according to a paper by the British historian Keith Snell. Half of all Manhattan dwellings are one-person residences. Snell identified a Midtown Census tract where 94 percent of households comprised a single person.
At younger ages, men outnumber women in one-person households. Young men are far more likely than young women to be single, and they tend to marry later.
The gender gap in solitary living closes with age. In the retirement years, women are more likely than men to live alone.
That statistic is partly about women outliving husbands, and partly about “grey divorce,” the rising rate of marriages that dissolve after age 50. The grey divorce rate has doubled since 1990.
“It used to be that if people were married for 30 years and they entered their 60s, basically, they were going to stay married,” said Barbara Risman, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago. “You would pass the risk of divorce. No one is ever past the risk of divorce anymore.”
Men are more likely than women to form a new partnership after a late-stage divorce, said Susan Brown, distinguished professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. Both partners typically emerge from the marriage into a sharply diminished lifestyle.
“It’s really hard to recover economically from a grey divorce,” Brown said. “Couples have spent a lifetime building a nest egg, only to divide it.”
Through much of the 20th century, marriage was so universal that the very act of living alone carried a stigma.
The share of Americans who had not married by age 40 hovered below 10 percent from 1950 through 1980, according to a Pew Research analysis. The figure has soared in recent decades, reaching 25 percent in 2021, a record high.
Some of the solo-living stigma endures to this day.
“The notion is that there must be a problem: The person clearly would prefer to be married,” Klinenberg said.
The share of Americans in prime marriage years who are actually married has dwindled from about two-thirds to around half since 1990, Pew data show. Nearly two-fifths of Americans are “unpartnered,” neither married nor cohabiting.
Is that a problem?
Researchers consider living alone a risk factor for loneliness and social isolation, conditions associated with a host of physical and mental maladies, from heart disease to obesity to anxiety and depression.
That is not to say, however, that someone who lives alone is doomed to loneliness.
“People can live alone and still be vibrant community members,” Risman said. “One can live alone and have a tight family network, friends who care about you and you talk to on a daily or weekly basis.”
Men tend to fare less well than women in single-person households, said Louise Hawkley, a researcher at the NORC thinktank who studies loneliness and social isolation.
People living alone may struggle in rural areas but thrive in cities. Think of “Seinfeld,” the sitcom set in Manhattan and populated by characters who mostly lived alone, but who seemed to spend nearly every waking hour together.
“Even if you live alone,” Hawkley said, “you can have a very rich social life.”