‘Why am I being selfish if there’s only me?” demanded singleton Will Freeman in Nick Hornby’s determinedly sentimental novel About a Boy. Well, now we know. There was a brief moment, around the end of the last millennium, when singletons seemed to be out and proud, when the “solo pound” promised to rejuvenate our inner cities, and when the single masses seemed to be about to join battle to overturn every oppressive social institution from single supplements to Valentine’s day.
If it ever really existed, that moment is now over. A report published in an environmental journal recently dubbed people living on their own – and especially men between the ages of 25 to 44 – as “regretful loners” who consume more energy and generate more waste than couples. It was only the latest piece of news to pour cold water on the joys of single living. Singletons are now regularly warned that their lives are lonely, miserable and short. Single men, according to a clutch of surveys, don’t go to the doctor enough, are more likely to get depressed and – worst of all – have no one with whom to discuss their emotional problems. They are also, according to a scientific paper last month, more likely to have heart attacks, angina and suffer a sudden death. If heart disease doesn’t get them, the social stigma surely will. In Japan, the backlash is such that young singletons are now tarred with the media brush of “parasite singles”.
The burgeoning number of singletons, however, is too complex a problem to be solved by name calling. Increased life expectancy means growing numbers of people are widowed and living alone and a rising divorce rate has increased the numbers of men and women content to live on their own – what marketers call the “seasoned singles”. The number of single-person households is also increasing because of the tendency for those in their 20s and 30s to postpone or shy away from coupledom. Where once settling down was the norm and singleness a frictional state between relationships,as one report from the Economic and Social Research Council has it, nowadays it is marriage and couplehood that is the interlude; a pleasurable but easily disposable experience, to be put away as soon its occupants revert to their default state of living alone.
To label this lot as “regretful loners” is a little patronising, but closer to the truth than fluff about the wonders of single living. Most young singles do aspire to a lasting relationship under one roof, but are balancing that aspiration against other considerations. The vogue for living alone among young professionals seems to be evidence of a more general development – that singletons have begun to think of privacy as freedom from demands made by other people.
The question is what to do about all this. The author of the environmental report suggests”regretful loners” should be encouraged to move into “collective housing schemes” – glorified dormitories, in other words – but that seems unlikely to appeal. As most singletons live in glorified urban rabbit hutches anyway, with less space and less need for a car than suburb-dwelling families, they are hardly the grotesque offenders against the environment that the report suggests. No, the worst thing about singletons is that they harbour an irrational fear of the harmful effects that might result from prolonged exposure to other people. Hardly selfish, but maybe just a little sad.