Living Alone: Men and Women, Young to Old, Around the World
Whether people live alone depends on whether they can and whether they want to.
Posted February 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
“During the past half-century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people—at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion—have begun settling down as singletons.”
That’s what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg said in Going Solo, his important book on the growing number of people who live alone (whom he calls “singletons”).
The popularity of living alone, though, varies tremendously from one region of the world to another. It also differs greatly across the lifespan. There are gender differences, too—in the likelihood that they will live alone, men and women are not equals.
The differences in living alone by age, gender, and region of the world have been documented in a study published online in Population and Development Review. In “Living alone over the life course: Cross-national variations on an emerging issue,” Albert Esteve and his colleagues reported patterns from 113 nations: 29 from Europe and North America, 24 from Asia and Oceania, 37 from Africa, and 23 from Latin America and the Caribbean. In their analyses of differences in living alone across the lifespan, they zeroed in on three age groups: (1) young adults, ages 25-29; (2) a middle group, 50-54; and (3) an older group, 75-79.
The Psychology and Economics of Living Alone—What Should Matter?
Two categories of factors are important in determining whether people will live alone: (1) whether it is possible for them to do so, and (2) whether it is desirable. (That’s the framework I’m imposing on the various factors mentioned by the authors, and some other factors as well.)
Is it possible to live alone?
Living alone can be expensive. To live alone, people need to be able to afford it. That is more likely to happen in wealthier nations.
Older people are more likely to be able to afford to live alone in countries that provide social security or other pension systems.
The availability of affordable housing suitable for one-person households matters, too.
Being single is an opportunity to live alone. In many places around the world, more people are living single longer, because of demographic trends such as marrying later or not at all, getting divorced, and not remarrying as often after divorce. (Although some married people live apart in places of their own, the numbers are relatively small and not typically tracked in international studies, such as the one I’m describing.)
Because women outlive men, there are more women than men among the oldest demographics. That demographic pattern provides an opportunity for more older women to live alone. Overall, increases in longevity are also important, especially in places where the health of older people is improving—that way, they can take care of themselves on their own.
The internet and other advances in communication technology have made it more possible for people to live alone without feeling isolated. People who have access to these technologies and can afford them can stay at home and still be in touch with the world. Increasing urbanization also helps. In cities, people can walk outside their doors and find other people, as well as access to food, entertainment, transportation, and other services.
Is it desirable to live alone?
In many places, family ties are highly valued. That includes living with family members. People in those places are unlikely to be interested in living alone, even if they stay unmarried for many years and could afford a place of their own. Living alone may even be stigmatized.
Fueling the global increase in living alone is a highly consequential trend in the opposite direction of family-orientation—the rise of individualism. Over the past half-century, more and more people are embracing values such as independence, self-expression, and personal choice. They want to live the kind of life that works best for them, even if that sets them apart from more conventional or celebrated life paths, such as marrying and having children.
Women’s power and independence have been increasing in many places. In the context of growing individualism, more women are likely to be interested in having a place of their own.
Who Lives Alone?
Proportionately, many more people live alone in Europe and North America than in any of the other regions that were studied. Latin America and Africa are more family-oriented; fewer people live alone. “Asia emerges as the most familial of all,” Esteve and his colleagues concluded.
How many people live alone at different ages?
People in the middle adult years are least likely to live alone, and the oldest adults are most likely to live alone.
- Among the youngest adults, ages 25-29, the number who live alone in the 113 nations ranges from 0 to 32 percent. (Zero doesn’t mean that no one lives alone, but that rounding to the nearest whole number gives you an answer of zero percent.) That high of 32 percent belongs to Germany. There and in Switzerland, nearly 1 of every 3 adults between 25 and 29 lives alone.
- Among the middle group of adults, ages 50-54, the number who live alone ranges from 0 to 19 percent. The UK has the highest percentage of 50-54-year-olds who live alone.
- For the oldest group, ages 75-79, the number who live alone ranges from 0 to 53 percent. Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the UK have the largest percentages of older people living alone.
In 63 of the 113 nations (56 percent), fewer than 5 percent of the young adults, ages 25-29, live alone. In general, then, living alone as a young adult is very unusual in most places around the globe.
In 50 of the 113 countries (44 percent), fewer than 5 percent of the people in the 50-54 age group live alone.
The oldest group (ages 75-79) looks very different. Although there is one country out of the 113 where the percentage of people who live alone rounds to zero (an unspecified African nation), in many other countries, the rate of living alone is two to three times higher than it is for the middle group.
Who is more likely to live alone—men or women?
Gender differences in living alone are completely different for the youngest adults and the oldest ones.
- Among adults ages 25-29, men are more likely to live alone than women in nearly all 113 nations.
- In the middle group, ages 50-54, men are still more likely to live alone, but the differences are smaller, and in many countries, more women than men live alone. This middle group has the lowest overall percentages of people (both men and women) living alone.
- For the oldest adults, ages 75-79, the pattern completely flips. In the vast majority of countries, a greater percentage of women than men live alone—often a much greater percentage.
Although young men are more likely to live alone than young women in all four regions of the world that the authors studied, the differences are not equally great. In Europe and North America, there are 1.4 young men living alone for every 1 young woman living alone. In Latin America, there are 2.7 young men living alone for every woman, 3.7 in Asia, and a whopping 7.4 in Africa.
In the oldest group, the percentages of women who live alone are particularly striking in almost all of the European and North American countries. (The article is behind a paywall, but if you can access it, look at Figure 1.)
How important is marital status in determining who lives alone?
In a way, marital status is extremely important. Overwhelmingly, people who are not married—whether they are divorced or widowed or have always been single—are the ones most likely to be living alone.
But marital status is not the whole story. Even when comparisons are limited to people of the same marital status (only those who have always been single, for example), there are still big differences by age, gender, and regions of the world. Unmarried people who do not have the opportunity to live alone and the interest in living alone will instead live with other people—often family. Among young adults, those family members are most likely their parents. Middle-aged and older adults who are unmarried will often live with their kids if they have any.
How much does economic development matter?
If income matters, then wealthier countries will have higher percentages of people who live alone, and individuals with more income will be more likely to live alone. Income provides an opportunity to live alone, but that won’t necessarily translate into actually living alone if people are not interested or if there are other barriers. A correlation between income and living alone offers a suggestion as to the degree to which economic opportunities are translated into actual life choices.
The authors had access to a Human Development Index, which included measures of income, as well as education and longevity, for each country. Unsurprisingly, the countries that scored as more highly developed, according to the Index, were the ones with the higher percentages of people living alone.
People’s income, education, and longevity mattered most in the European and North American nations. Those correlations were highest. The people in those countries were most likely to take advantage of the opportunities that their income, education, and long life afforded them to live alone.
The correlations were also especially strong for older women. They were especially likely to live alone when they had the opportunity to do so. (See Figure 5 if you can access it.)
The Remarkable Social Experiment Marches On
That “remarkable social experiment” in living alone, described by Eric Klinenberg, is marching on. More and more people, in many places around the world, have the opportunity to live alone. But that doesn’t mean they all want to.
The interplay of the opportunities for living alone, with interest in living alone, determines who actually does live alone. So far, it is the older women who are leading the way. They are especially likely to take advantage of the opportunity to have a place all their own.