THROUGHOUT HISTORY, PEOPLE WHO LIVED ALONE WERE thought to be either poor souls who hadn't been lucky enough to find a mate, or prickly sorts who never could keep one.
Not anymore. Today, more and more Americans of all ages are choosing to live by themselves — without romantic partners, spouses or roommates — and are having a tremendous impact on the way the rest of us live, shop and even mate. For the first time in history, there are now more people living alone in single-person households than there are traditional families of a husband, a wife and one child. According to the latest U.S. census, as of the year 2000 there were approximately 27.2 million single-person households versus about 16.6 million three-person family households. And the percentage of single-person households in the U.S. — now at 26 percent — has been steadily marching upward for at least three decades. In other words, the era of the home-alone household is here to stay.
But more importantly, these singles are not just recent graduates or widows and divorcees in their golden years. A recent study conducted by New York City-based marketing and design firm Harvest Communications revealed that while almost a quarter of single-person households are made up of young people under the age of 35 who have never been married, many of them are “financially independent singles who are postponing marriage and focusing on health issues earlier.?? The rest of the demographic is made up of older singles in their middle and senior years, many of whom are still very active. The AARP puts the number of “older adults?? living alone at 15 million, or more than half the entire population of Americans who don't share their living space. As one middle-aged single survey respondent told Harvest, “Just because I'm divorced doesn't mean I'm dead … not all of us are mowing the lawn on our John Deere every Saturday.?? And, in the words of another older woman, “I wish advertisers made senior life sound empowering and not like a disease.??
In fact, across the board, members of single-person households tend to defy stereotypes that have become way out of date. Simply put, the image of the beer swilling, pizza gorging postgrad still trying to hold on to the remnants of his college glory days on a beat-up sofa with his former frat brothers, or the little old lady who enjoys mahjong and sits on a phone-book to see over the steering wheel as she makes her weekly drive to church are simply out of date. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of these singles, no matter their age, have two things in common: financial success and the willingness to spend to satisfy their desires. As an example, Yankelovich Monitor surveyed this demographic and found that across all age groups, members of single-person households are far more willing to spend money on themselves than others their own age who are in other living arrangements.
Those who live alone are an attractive market in certain product and service sectors. According to the 2001 Consumer Expenditure Survey, single-person households spend 153 percent more per person on rent than those who live in households of two people or more. They also spend more on alcohol ($314 per year compared with $181). And, they shell out more per person for reading materials, health care, and tobacco products and smoking supplies.
“What sets singles apart from the rest of the population is their different focus in terms of responsibilities,?? says Carey Earle, CEO of Harvest Communications. “We even see this difference between single luxury-goods purchasers and other luxury-goods purchasers. Because even at the very high-end luxury spend, even if a person is not at the highest earning level, they can afford more than someone at the same level who has kids. Their prioritization is different: being single allows them to be a little selfish.?? Earle is fond of noting that when Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw buys a $500 pair of shoes, she tells an amazed friend with two kids, “I can spend this kind of money on my shoes because that's the choice I've made: to be single.??
Of course, not every single woman — or man, for that matter — is in the market for a pair of Manolo Blahniks that cost about the same as the weekly wage of an average American. When it comes to relaxation and recreation purchases, activities and attitudes quickly begin to divide, both by age (i.e., under or over 35 years old) and, to a greater extent, gender. Yankelovich found that young singles were more likely (by 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively) to still allow themselves expensive treats regardless of the state of the economy and answer in the affirmative to the question, “if I really want something, price is not an object.?? Older male singles, meanwhile, tended to seek out new experiences, while older single women tended to see volunteer work — both before and after retirement — as a “youthful outlet.?? And when they asked what people who live alone do when they are upset about world events, both younger and older single women were far more likely to listen to music, turn to friends and family, and meditate or pray than their male counterparts, who were more inclined to pour a drink and get as much news as possible.
But there is a flip side to this apparent selfishness that cuts across age and gender lines: the desire for some sort of community to replace the traditional family structure that fewer and fewer Americans are living in each year. As a result, “people are defining ‘family’ much differently now,?? notes Cynthia Evans, senior partner in the marketing and media group of Mediaedge:cia. “What is interesting today is that with single-person households, there has become a new definition of ‘family.’ Today ‘family’ might mean a person with their pets, or they might consider their aerobics class or their yoga class members of their family.?? Adds Earle, “time-starved singles today have developed their own sort of quick fix communication connectivity. They're out there instant messaging each other and meeting each other and creating community.??
This desire for connection — even if it is not in the context of a traditional family — is rapidly becoming apparent to savvy companies that are using a variety of campaigns to get their customers to not just feel like consumers, but members of a community. Earle points out that hardware giant Lowe's has lately been holding events for women, teaching them how to use tools and make home repairs. These are often single females who live alone and can't rely on the stereotypical “man around the house?? for those services, if he ever could be relied on before, considering that the chain estimates that 80 percent of home improvement projects are initiated by women. What Lowe's is doing, according to Earle, is selling this community experience in the same way that everyone from Starbucks to companies that sell boutique adventure travel packages do. “This is going to be the big trend for the next 25 years, and it's going to be singles driving it. When hard times hit, families cut out these luxuries, whereas singles won't,?? says Earle.
Another facet of what might be termed the commodification of warm and fuzzy feelings is the growing use of what Earle calls “yoga copywriting?? to sell everything from credit cards to online dating services which, largely thanks to the power of young singles, have lost virtually all their stigma as the last refuge of the desperate and dateless. “This is the sort of thing that appeals to people before they become elite and affluent: when Citibank uses slogans like, ‘don't let your checkbook balance you,’ they are tapping in to this belief among young singles that says, ‘I can be successful but can also be holistic and balanced about who I am.’??
Almost unbelievably, however, the targeting of singles has only just begun to emerge in the food marketplace. While the George Foreman grill is a great example of a product targeted at people who live alone and value convenience, Earle says her focus groups routinely complain about the dearth of single-serving products.
The growing power of single-person households is affecting not only mating rituals but also marketing campaigns, which are just starting to show more positive portrayals of singles using products such as toilet cleansers that were once considered — by Madison Avenue at least — the sole domain of housewives, with large households to run. Given their penchant for spending whatever it takes to create the sort of feelings of community and connectedness they might not otherwise get in their homes or apartments, members of this demographic are beginning to show that they have the potential to remake the streetscapes of much of America as well.
“If people are living in a single-person household, they don't normally want to be alone,?? says John McIlwain, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. According to McIlwain, when, for reasons of cost, career or personal preference these singles move to the suburbs, they are looking for a far different experience than traditional families with kids. “The defining quality they are looking for is ‘walkability’ — they want a place where they don't have to get into a car to do everything.?? After all, says McIlwain, “it's in walking that they build community: they go to the same dry cleaner, and get to know the people there. Same thing with their grocery store and their liquor store and all the places they visit regularly. And along the way, you pass people, and even if you don't know them personally, you develop a sense of community.??
As of the most recent census, nearly the same number of nonfamily households were made up of only one member in urban, suburban and rural settings. And as the number of singles in the suburbs continues to grow, McIlwain says that urban planners will have to accommodate these new residents who crave settings like the new suburban towns sprouting outside of his own hometown of Washington, D.C. — neighborhoods in Maryland, and communities springing up in northern Virginia in areas like Ballston and around the Arlington Courthouse.
“Right now, builders are selling community?? to this market, says McIlwain, relating a story that illustrates just how this need for belonging trumps just about every other concern for potential renters and buyers. “I was working on a very unusual master plan community in the Southwest that was designed to be very ecologically sound,?? he recalls. “We did a survey of the people who were visiting from out of town, and we thought that everyone would say they were interested because it was a very green community, when in fact they all said that they loved the sense of community.?? From a builder's point of view, there are simple things that can be done to achieve this: real sidewalks, a streetscape where the storefronts vary enough so that pedestrians see something new every five to 10 seconds, and dense housing and office space above ground level.
Meanwhile, those singles who are more affluent, and want to live in a big city, are making their own marks on real estate trends. “There are many more young people who are buying homes now for just themselves because they are waiting until later in life to start families,?? says Royce Pinkwater. According to Pinkwater, who is a senior vice president for Sotheby's International Realty, and who largely works with consumers in the higher echelons of the market, which tends to, but is not necessarily, a more middle-aged demographic, single homebuyers are often women, and very keen to get the sort of house or apartment that suits their current lifestyle. “Families want a layout designed for the family — a room for a nanny, a laundry room, a big kitchen — whereas a single person has a lot more choices. They can go for a fabulous loft, or something less conservative or traditional?? than they might otherwise purchase if they were buying for more than just themselves.
If the prevailing ethic of 50 years ago prized settling down, starting and raising a family, today's America puts individualism on a pedestal in a way it never has before. In that sense, those people who choose to live alone are making what can be considered a very American decision to live life on their own terms, creating their own communities without regrets or claims made on their lives that they don't consent to. Of course, who will be around to enjoy the fruits of all this cultural creation if these singles don't eventually pair up and reproduce is another question.