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…