When we see a few more strollers being pushed around the mall, the perception is that married couples with children are the biggest and most rapidly growing household type. The reality is one-person households have had far higher growth rates and are now more numerous than married couples with kids. At least 1 in every 3 new households created during the 1990s was a single person. As a result, they are now 26 percent of U.S. households — more than 1 in every 4 — up from less than 10 percent in 1950.
During the 1990s the number of people who live alone increased by 4.6 million to 27 million households — a 21 percent increase. While the number of married couples with children edged up 1.3 million to 24.8 million — a 6 percent increase. Considering the magnitude of the group and high growth rate, single-person households deserve more respect and attention.
Traditionally, most people who live alone have been women (57 percent), but men are catching up fast. The number of men who live alone increased 28 percent during the 1990s compared with a 15 percent increase for women. The big difference between men and women who live alone is in their age. Most women who live alone are 55 or older (63 percent) compared with about 34 percent of men who live alone and who are 55 and older.
The vast majority of women who live alone are either widowed (43 percent) or divorced/ separated (30 percent). Only 25 percent of women who live alone have never been married. By contrast, only 13 percent of men who live alone are widowers and 38 percent are divorced/separated. Nearly half of men who live alone (46 percent) have never been married.
At first glance it doesn't look like one-person households have much money to spend. But they often have more than other households on a per person basis. The average annual income of a single-person household is $31,700, which is about $1,400 more than the average income of two-person households divided by two.
Ten percent of single men and 5 percent of single women (a total of about 2 million households) have an annual income of $50,000 or more, which is the equivalent of a $100,000 two-person household. More than half (52 percent) of single-person householders own their home, and a solid majority (60 percent) of these homeowners have no mortgage.
The homeownership rate among single-person households is lower than that for multi-person households because this is a more urban population: nearly 40 percent live in central cities of metro areas compared with only 29 percent of multi-person households. By contrast, in rural America, only about 1 in 5 households is a single-person residence.
The proximity of so many dining places in the city may partly account for single-person households spending about 14 percent more on a per person basis for restaurant meals than two-person households, and spending twice as much per person on wine at full-service restaurants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) Consumer Expenditure Surveys, single-person households spend just about the same percentage of their after-tax income on food, but they go out to eat and have a drink more often.
The average single-person household spends a larger percentage of their income on housing — 34 percent compared with 27 percent for two-person households. But the BLS reports the average one-person household has over $1,300 in discretionary income, a figure that has doubled in the past two years.
Since the majority of household growth in the next 10 years is going to be among households age 50 or older, we are likely to see continued high growth of people who live alone. But future single-person households may not look like the ones we know. Living alone may become more of a lifestyle choice or a transitory situation for someone who is between relationships.
One of the reasons more people live alone today is because they can afford to. In the past, singles often became part of an extended family and put up with the sometimes unsatisfactory relationships with family members. Not today. It is an interesting paradox that the U.S. county with what must be the highest cost of housing (Manhattan) also has perhaps the highest concentration of people who live alone (50 percent of all households).
Census data might lead us to assume that the concept of household size is fixed. But our increasingly affluent and mobile society suggests that it is a more dynamic element. A single-person householder may have a friend or lover over on weekends and for that part of the week may be spending like a two-person household. Or a divorced parent may live alone part of the time and have custody of the children the rest of the time, and spend quite differently.
Perhaps the biggest change may occur among the women who are likely to live alone. In the past a very large percentage of them were widows or divorced women who lived in or near poverty. But women's increasing educational attainment and labor force participation will almost certainly change that demographic.
The 57 percent increase in the labor force participation rate among women ages 55 to 64 projected for this decade by the BLS suggests that we are likely to see many more financially independent women who choose to live alone. It doesn't mean that they will necessarily forgo relationships, but they might more often forgo a live-together-year-round type of relationship.
The target marketing of goods and services using demographic data has assumed a relatively static set of household types. But the rapid increase in the number of more affluent and mobile single-person households suggests that we may have to rethink household typologies. The rise in the number of people who live alone suggests that income and lifestyle may become as important as predictors of consumer spending as household size.
Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.