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11 October 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Singleton society
As the number of single-person households is predicted to soar, sociologist Frank Furedi explains why so many men and women are opting to live alone.

by Frank Furedi

Forget marital breakdown, high rates of divorce, and the number of children born outside of marriage. Endless discussions about the 'crisis' facing the family distract attention from trends that are likely to have a far greater impact on how we live. The truth is that adults are not only finding it difficult to sustain marriage, but just about all forms of intimate relationships.

According to a study conducted by the UK Future Foundation for Abbey National in January 2002, for the first time more people are living alone or in one-parent households than in a traditional family unit - or as one article summed it up, 'Living alone is now the norm in the UK' (1). The rise of the adult singleton suggests that we are experiencing, not so much a crisis of the family, but a profound difficulty in handling close and personal relationships.

The rising number of singletons seems to be an all-pervasive global phenomenon, impacting on industrial societies throughout the world. In 1950, about three percent of the population of Europe and the USA lived alone. Today in the UK, seven million adults live alone - three times as many as 40 years ago. The UK statistics bible Social Trends estimates that by 2020, one-person households will make up 40 percent of total households.

In France, the number of people living on their own has more than doubled since 1968, and about 40 percent of Swedes now live alone. The shift towards solo living is most pronounced in the big urban centres of the West - with over 50 percent of households in Munich, Frankfurt and Paris containing just one person, while in London nearly four in 10 people live on their own. The growth in single-person households is mainly a result of an increasing number of 25- to 45-year-olds opting to live alone. Since 1960, the number of German 25s to 45s living on their own has risen by 500 percent.

These shifts represent not merely a demographic but also a cultural phenomenon. The growth of the new singles lifestyle - especially in large urban environments - indicates that conventional forms of adult relationships have lost some of their appeal.

People fear pain and disappointment
There are no doubt some positive reasons why people should choose to live alone. Individuals might be too focused on demanding and exciting careers, too absorbed by life, to have much time to devote to another person. There are times when the aspiration for freedom dictates the course of individual experimentation - and sometimes we don't want to compromise, regarding living with others as a trap.

But the home-alone phenomenon is underwritten by profound social and cultural forces. The real issue is not what individuals choose to do, but the strong cultural pressures that have weakened the foundation for durable relationships. The fact that so many people in their twenties, thirties and forties have opted for the single life indicates that there must be a problem with traditional ways of relating to one another.

In one sense, the rise of the single life represents the continuation of an historic trend of individuation. But recent developments are more than the contemporary manifestation of a two-century-old phenomenon. For example, until recently hardline bachelors and spinsters were seen as odd and eccentric - while today they have become mainstream, even positive figures. These kind of changes express an important alteration to the experience of intimacy.

On balance, recent changes in how people live represent a positive recognition of individual choice. In the past, commitments were often experienced as an obligation to be endured - and the flight from commitment sometimes represented a quest for freedom. The problem today is that we often seem unsure of how best to use this freedom to cooperate intimately, as adults.

Most surveys show that although people value their independence, they yearn for some kind of emotional commitment. Although singletons invariably claim to be happy on their own - that they positively opted for independent living - reality is a bit more complicated. A survey commissioned by Match.com in 2001 claimed that more than 50 percent of singletons surveyed were openly or secretly looking for a partner while pretending to be content with solitude.

Cultivation of the self has a destructive impact on commitment
Often, the cynicism with which single people dismiss romantic commitment suggests that they fear pain and disappointment. The anticipation of disappointment is a result of a culture that finds it difficult to endow intimate relationships with any intrinsic meaning. Today, the age-old tension between the aspiration for self-realisation and commitment is difficult to resolve. In the past this tension could be contained through the widespread influence of the ideology of romantic love - which celebrated the value of self-realisation through an intimate encounter with another person. The synthesis of autonomy and commitment helped diffuse conflicts of interests, at least for a brief period of time.

But the ideology of romantic love could only effectively contain conflicts of interests because women were expected to renounce their desire for autonomy in favour of maintaining the relationship. Since the 1970s, this one-sided arrangement has come unstuck. At a time when women seek to develop themselves no less than men, love ceases to provide the focus for an ideology that can sustain durable commitment.

It is not just the changing position of women that called into question the viability of traditional forms of intimate relations. The 1980s Thatcherite dictum that there is no such thing as society gave expression to powerful forces that helped consolidate a profound orientation towards the self. Paradoxically, the cultural focus on the self was not simply the work of free-market crusaders, but also sprung from the therapeutic ethos of the 1960s that exhorted people to do what feels right for them. Put bluntly, the self-oriented idea that 'if it feels right, do it' cannot sustain permanent intimate relationships. Individuals who are free to do what they feel is right have a permanent exit strategy from any commitment - which is why the problem of commitment is not confined to the sphere of family affairs.

The single lifestyle does not simply mean disengagement from family life. Commitment to workmates and friends also acquires a diminished significance.

Advocates of the single life often claim that people now get intimacy and support through friendship networks, rather than from the family. But the idea that singles enjoy intense intimate relations with friends is not borne out by research. Since 1986, the proportion of British singles who see a best friend on a weekly basis has been falling - and surveys show that thirtysomethings today have about half the number of friends that their counterparts would have had 30 or 40 years ago.

Today, the story of love is about 'me'
The cultivation of the self, continually fostered by contemporary culture, has a destructive impact on the experience of commitment. It isn't that individuals have become selfish people, devoid of interest in others' welfare. Rather, today's individuated culture finds it hard to provide men and women with both the meaning and the focus for their commitment. This failure to situate intimate relationships within a wider, culturally sanctioned web of meaning is most striking in relation to the contemporary narrative of love.

Love today finds it difficult to say anything plausible about attachment, self-sacrifice or lifelong commitment. The story of love is about me - finding my self, self-actualisation, autonomy and personal growth. Ultimately, the orientation towards the self erodes the foundation for intimate relationships. Self-interest that remains unmediated by wider cultural meanings encourages a withdrawal from the pursuit of intimacy.

Intimacy cannot thrive at a time when relationships lack shared meaning, clarity and context. Without any obvious answers to the question what are the aims and purposes of a relationship, its conduct becomes arbitrary. With no external point of reference, commitment simply can't stand up to the pressures of everyday life.

The difficulties people experience in finding a focus for their emotional commitment ends up consolidating anxieties about intimate relationships - and people often approach their private relations with a heightened sense of emotional risk. One strategy for dealing with such risks is to distance the self from the potential source of disappointment, to detach from others as a way of avoiding emotional pain. Today, a number of tactics - from prenuptial agreements to cultivating the virtues of solo living - are used to manage the perceived risks of self-fulfilment.

The reinterpretation of personal commitment as a risk comes across as a health warning to anybody foolish enough to desire passionate engagement. So often we are told not to have 'unrealistic' expectations of intimate relationships. 'Be careful, you might get hurt', new couples are often told.

The relationship industry is devoted to cooling passions
This view of commitment lowers society's expectations of relationships. Backed by government policies, the entire relationship industry is devoted to cooling passions and advising people not to expect that their personal bonds will last for life. Such advice might be well meant, but it has the predictable outcome of turning people off. Without passion and spontaneity, personal relations will turn into the pragmatic transactions that dominate the marketplace. And who would want to commit his or her life to such a banal and unrewarding affair?

It isn't surprising that so many intelligent men and women seem to have renounced passionate commitment, opting instead for the single life. If passion comes with a health warning, the single life at least promises to be risk-free.

So are intimate commitments possible? The answer is a hesitant yes. Despite today's cynicism towards engagement with others, many people continue to express their humanity through rewarding relations with others. But as long as society fails to endow intimate relations with any meaning that transcends self-realisation we will all be singles - whether we are in a relationship or not.

The problem is not solo living. Single society is only a problem when it becomes a substitute for constructing cooperative relationships and for sharing experience with others. Finding meaning in our relationships within the wider context of change is the project ahead of us now. Neither the nostalgia of the traditionalist nor the instrumentalist ethos of political correctness helps us in this quest. The loss of old certainties can be turned into an opportunity if we dare to define and spell out what intimate relationships are for our times.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:
  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)

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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)

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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)

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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi's website

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spiked-issue: Love and sex

(1) Living alone is 'the norm', BBC News, 11 January 2002

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