More and more people are living alone. After a 16 per cent rise to 7.7m single-person households over the past two decades, their number is projected to rise another 38 per cent to 10.7m by 2039. Expect to hear a lot more about this trend—and the challenges it presents—in the years ahead.
But in fact the most remarkable thing is not that these figures are high—it is that they’re not significantly higher. Most of the increase since the late 1990s can be accounted for by population growth. And by the standards of our neighbours in western and northern Europe, single living in the UK has been at strikingly low levels.
So what is going on? At the root of this is a generation gap in the UK between older people, who have been living alone in greater numbers over the past two decades, and younger people, who have been living alone less and less. This second part is dragging down the overall figure. But why is living alone becoming less popular among younger people?
In the 1990s single living was quickly becoming more popular among younger people, rising from 6.4 per cent of all under-35s in 1991 to 8.1 per cent in 2001. But since then it has fallen back, to 7 per cent in 2011 and, in 2019, it is probably now around 6.5 per cent.
The most notable manifestation of this has been a steep increase in young adults living with their parents—the number has increased by about a million, to 3.4m, since the early 2000s. But the increase has been much greater in places with higher housing costs. The proportion of 20 to 34-year-olds living with their parents grew by 41 per cent in London compared with 17 per cent in the north east.
It is reasonable to think, then, that the housing situation played a significant role in this trend, but how? It is understandable that these young adults might be unable to buy a home, given the growth in house price-to-earnings ratios over this period. But are they unable to find somewhere they can afford to rent? Or could it be that they actually enjoy living with their parents more than earlier generations?
Focus group research by academics at Loughborough University has recently explored the motives and attitudes of those who continue to live in the parental home in their 20s. While some acknowledged the attraction of “home comforts,” the choice to live with their parents was seen mostly as a constrained one. The overwhelming driver, predictably perhaps, was the desire to make financial savings on the costs of living alone, or even with friends—principally in the form of rent.
But this does not seem to have been a straightforward question of whether they could strictly afford to rent a home of their own. That may have been the case for some, and there is little doubt that housing benefit cuts will have removed the ability for some households to cover market rents. But for many of those young adults living with their parents, saving on rent was motivated by the desire to build a deposit to buy a home of their own.
As researchers Katherine Hill and Donald Hirsch say: “A common motivation for young adults was saving money in order to eventually to move out… ideally to get a deposit, mortgage and buy their own property—so moving their lives on. Participants noted that living more cheaply with parents would quicken the process, reasoning that it would be very hard if not impossible to save enough otherwise; large sums that would otherwise go to rent could be saved towards a deposit.”
This suggests that a significant chunk of the decline in single living among young people, and the corresponding rise in young adults living with their parents, is a result not of rents being literally unaffordable—but of them being too high to be manageable alongside saving towards home ownership. Had they been able to buy, they would have done. Their options limited to either renting or continuing to live with their parents, they have chosen the latter.
This may help explain a certain paradox, which is that household formation has appeared constrained in recent years even while, on average, incomes have been rising faster than rents. If rents are becoming more affordable, why hasn’t household formation been picking up again? One reason, it would seem, is that people are not indifferent between buying and renting. The desire to buy is strong—so much so that many will delay moving out until they are in a better position to go straight into owner-occupation. Even if that means living with their parents for a few more years first.
Daniel Bentley is editorial director of the think tank Civitas. He is the co-author, with Alex McCallum, of “Rise and Fall: The shift in household growth rates since the 1990s”