It's National Singles Week, and Bridget Jones is back. But is singleton society something to celebrate?
This week is UK National Singles Week. Says who? Solo’s Holidays, a small travel company based on the outskirts of London, which specialises in organising holidays for single people and clearly has a gift for clever PR. Because thanks to the timely re-emergence of the UK’s most famous singleton, Bridget Jones, on the pages of the Independent, and a skimpy survey of single people commissioned by Solo’s Holidays to ‘coincide’ (in the words of one news report) with the very celebration that it made up, Singles Week seems to have been swiftly accepted as a new national institution.
In an article headlined ‘Single living is the new way to find happiness’, The Times (London) reports on the findings of Solo’s Holidays survey. Eighty-two per cent of the singletons questioned said that being single gave them ‘an opportunity to try new life experiences’, and 89 per cent said that travelling alone ‘boosted their confidence’. Ninety-three per cent agreed that the government should do more to recognise the importance of the growing single population (1).
The cable channel uktv style proclaims on its website: ‘A whopping 48 per cent of the UK’s adult population is now single and it looks like the world’s finally decided to stop penalising them for it!’ and ushers people towards a live web chat hosted by ‘Life Coach’ Mark Watkins and Gill Harvey, MD of Solo’s Holidays (2). The Independent on Sunday celebrates National Singles Week (and the return of the Indy’s most successful columnist) with a full-page discussion of ‘The new Bridget Jones generation’, complete with a quiz about ‘Should you go solo?’ and a personal testimony on ‘The joy of being single’ (3).
Elsewhere in the press, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams counters that ‘Singletons are selfish’. National Singles Week has built its case for greater recognition of singletons on the projection that ‘by 2010, 40 per cent of us will be living in one-person households’: ‘In fact’, says Williams, ‘that is an awful statistic. There is absolutely nothing to be said for household units of one’ – which, she claims, are bad for individuals’ health and a wasteful use of society’s resources (4). Times columnist Libby Purves strides ashore from her week-long holiday with the ‘able-plus-disabled voyages of the Jubilee Sailing Trust’ to deplore the irresponsible vacuity of Bridget Jones. Purves’ time spent ‘sailing a square-rigger in North Sea gales alongside people in wheelchairs’ in a ‘bracing no-nonsense Norwegian atmosphere’ has made her feel ‘grievously adrift from the culture’ in which women indulge in binge-drinking, casual sex and girly chit-chat, and ‘brood on which underwear goes best with a slippy little dress’ (5).
But given Purves’ obvious self-satisfaction, why does she appear to feel so threatened by celebrity singletons?
It’s not as though Bridget Jones and Solo’s Holidays are part of a conspiracy to destroy the institutions of marriage and the family. They are simply cashing in on a new reality of our society: that people live the single life for longer than they used to, and increasing numbers appear to be opting out of lifelong commitments altogether. However, the cult of Bridget Jones, and the tone of the discussion about Singles Week, represents a broader cultural shift in the way that singlehood and long-term commitment are understood. In the past, to be single was assumed to be a temporary state: today, it is often taken to be a permanent identity, a positive life choice. Social atomisation and personal insecurity are turned into a cause for celebration.
After all, National Singles Week is not the same thing as a singles bar, or a Singles Nite, or a single meal in a supermarket – all of which have been around for as long as many of us can remember. Nobody ever went to a Singles Nite because they wanted to dance by themselves, or ate a single meal in preference to a romantic dinner for two. Until very recently, Singles Things of all descriptions have been pretty crass ways of bringing people together, and people who lived alone tended to be old and widowed, or divorced. Even as society adapted to women’s equality and independence, to later or no marriage and a normal chunk of singlehood mingled with multiple relationships throughout the twentysomething years, the expectation was still that, sooner or later, the individual would settle down with a partner for life.
The torch-bearers of today’s singleton society challenge this expectation, with their bold claims about fun, spontaneity, choice and privacy, and this is clearly unsettling. It is one thing to recognise, as most people do, that spending a part of one’s adult life as a ‘single person’, living alone or with friends and testing out new relationships, is preferable to the unbroken fate of daughter-wife-mother that met many women not so very long ago. It is another thing entirely to start questioning whether, in our enlightened, equal, independent world, sharing our lives with other people is really something we want to be bothered with. What kind of society can we be, if we are prepared to renounce a relationship even with one other person?
Of course, despite the reality of singleton society, it remains the case that most people have not fully bought into the notion of ‘Me, myself and I’ as the ideal lifestyle choice. The boom in internet dating and other quirky Singles Things indicates that people haven’t turned their backs on relationships, even if they aren’t exactly leaping into them feet first. National Singles Week is a made-up stunt by a holiday company and the media, and even Solo’s Holidays’ own propaganda is equivocal about whether being single is really A Good Thing For Life. If 82 per cent of respondents to its survey said that being single was an opportunity to try new life experiences, 71 per cent of singletons also said that fear of doing something on their own was a barrier to trying new things (6).
The National Singles Week guide to ‘making the most of single life’ is littered with banal titbits of advice from ‘life coaches’ and career experts – enough to make vicars and in-laws an attractive proposition even to the most committed singleton. And Bridget Jones, it appears, is still trying to find her man. Rather than pushing singletons to embrace their identity, our culture would do better to leave people alone, to discover for themselves who they want to end up living with.
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