In the relentless quest to find attention-grabbing headlines, many reporters are adept at inflating the "findings" of authors and academics who are promoting their work but don't always check facts. Recent media attention about the number of adults living on their own is a case in point. A look behind the US numbers reveals that:
- The proportions of adults living on their own have not changed significantly, but the actual number of these adults has increased primarily because of population growth.
- Adults living on their own are not one homogeneous group. Findings vary depending on how one defines this population.
- The decline in traditional nuclear families results naturally in an increase in both multigenerational and single-headed households. (See Singletons: 50 Million Single-Headed Households.)
- The increase in one-adult, no-child households is significant among two consumer groups that hold marriage to be a sacred institution between one man and one woman.
The basic premise, according to US Census figures is true. In actual numbers, more adults are living on their own. The phenomenon is global, according to Time Magazine (12 March 2012). The proportions of individuals who live on their own—as a percentage of all adults—range from a high of 47% in Sweden to a low of 3% in India (34% in Britain, 31% in Japan, and 28% in the United States). Time's article "Living Alone Is the New Norm" makes for a good headline but is not correct.
One can say the same for author Eric Klinenberg's (Going Solo) claim that "The extraordinary rise of solitary living...is the biggest social change that we've neglected to identify." An interesting piece of marketing hype, but is the statement true? Perhaps a more accurate claim might be that the number of Solos is approaching a level that represents business opportunities. Buried in this population of Solos is a group that is single by choice, according to Consumer Financial Decisions' director Larry Cohen. This group may represent the best business opportunity of all.
The increase in number of Solos will alter customer demand. Consumer needs for everything from housing and long-term health care to transportation, travel, entertainment, and packaged goods are in flux. For example, demand for large homes may shrink not only because empty-nest Boomers are downsizing but also because of the increase in numbers of Solo households. Travel providers might want to consider packages featuring an educational component and priced for mature singles, not two adults.
The extent of disruption by industry will depend on the degree to which Solos successfully cope with their status. Their ability to cope depends not only on their financial resources but also on their psychological and emotional fortitude. Why should Solos matter to your organization?
Out of Balance without a Partner
In the smaller of the two groups (6% of all Solos), slightly more than one-third are now living on their own. These Solos' average age is 58; their average household income is $70 000; almost two-thirds are women; 78% own their own home. They are committed to their careers but believe that life balance is very important. Traditional values ensure that many continue to promote marriage as the best institution to maintain family, community, and national stability, because nuclear families are a historic reference point about how the world should work. With a conservative worldview, they believe that marriage occurs in the natural maturation process and is a milestone in a life well led. Without a partner, they are out of balance.
Solos in this group are unlikely to be lonely, even though they are less social than several other types of consumers. Their social engagements are more likely small gatherings of friends or like-minded individuals—in which meaningful discussions are possible—than large groups of people, which are psychologically draining. Their interests are somewhat varied; activities such as reading, walking, swimming, and playing golf are not strenuous or physically challenging. Many find the process of cooking enjoyable but are often challenged to find ingredients and recipes for one.
These Solos need time alone in which to contemplate and renew. They tend to live in their heads, which means that they spend a fair amount of time just thinking about ideas, events, or conversations and such. Responsible and fiscally moderate, many have the wherewithal to be relatively good consumers and sufficient savings and investments to retire comfortably.
Financial institutions and health-care and long-term-care providers, in particular, would benefit from a study of these Solos because they will lead other single-headed households' use of products and services from these industries. These Solos are part of a larger consumer group of early adopters in these product categories.
Similar to Solos who are out of balance, consumers who are adrift are also traditional and conservative; they represent 15% of all Solos. Unlike the first group, they have fewer financial resources and a more constrained worldview. They are more likely than average to be widowed, divorced, or legally separated. Their median age is 53; their average annual household income is $38 000; 72% are women.
These consumers are adrift because their family-centered, traditional-gender role and family-values outlook are counter to their status. Many feel lonely and unhappy as a result. They look to family members, other than the absent spouse, for emotional support and to religious-affiliated groups to which they belong for companionship. The loss of the primary or secondary income earner often presents major difficulties—and in some cases, hardship—for which no compensation exists. Low levels of curiosity, spontaneity, and variety seeking, in addition to constrained financial resources, further isolate these Solos. Their relatively low level of self-confidence makes it difficult for many to make friends easily. Their activities are limited; most are more sedentary than active. Their general activities center on their home (housekeeping and some gardening).
As they age, these consumers —among several others—will rely heavily on government social safety-net programs. They are affected by changes in public policy; they resist strongly any changes that will negatively affect their somewhat fragile quality of life. More likely to think of the immediate impacts of change than the possibility of long-term ramifications of no change, many can be swayed by emotionally charged issues to vote against their own long-term best interests.
Although adrift Solos represent a modest consumer market, they are loyal brand and channel customers. Every mid-priced-vehicle manufacturer, packaged-good manufacturer, and social-advocacy and public-policy organization could profit from a close study of Solos who are adrift, because they are the nexus of other Solo groups.
Several trends combine to suggest that the number of solo households will not decline in the foreseeable future. For example, upper-socioeconomic women's earning power will increase because of the disproportionate number of women in graduate-school programs. Women who are self-supporting and have access to family planning have greater autonomy than other women have and greater choice about when, if ever, to marry; fewer men with commensurate earning power will be available than previously. Many questions remain about women as primary breadwinners: How many men are comfortable in such relationships? What proportion will be happy househusbands without bruised egos? Lower-socioeconomic women will continue to struggle on a single income but may choose to cohabit rather than marry because of high unemployment and incarceration rates among men in their social class. These statistics will further decimate the middle class. The result will be fewer households with discretionary income to spend and increased competition for those households that have such income.