Single Life: From Social Stigma to Urban Phenomenon

This week, for those who did not know, is National Unmarried and Single Americans Week. The annual observance serves to promote and recognize the population of Americans who are unmarried, divorced, or widowed. This demographic group, as identified by the U.S. Census Bureau includes anyone over the age of 18 that is not currently, or has never been married – which would include unwed partners as well as single parents raising children.

Some general statistics for 2011, as tabulated from the Census:

  • 102 million people are unmarried or single
  • 17 million of them are 65 or older
  • In this group, there are 89 men for every 100 women
  • Of 13.6 million unmarried parents living with children, 10 million are women, 1.7 are men, and 1.9 are couples
  • 55 million households (46% of total HH) are made up of unmarried men and women
  • 33 million people live alone in a single person household (28% of total HH)

This last statistic – that nearly a third of the nation’s households are made up of people living alone – is increasingly significant. Eric Klinenberg is perhaps the most fascinated with this growing phenomenon, stating that “The extraordinary rise of living alone is among the greatest social changes since the baby boom.” He points out that while such solitude carried a pretty heavy societal stigma prior to 1960, the percentage of people living alone has since doubled. Klinenberg writes more extensively on this issue in his recent book, Going Alone, where he examines the trends and apparent misconceptions about how living alone may in fact permit people to be more (not less) social than those with partners and families.

Klinenberg points out that widowed and divorced seniors tend to choose living alone when given the choice and the chance, yet he extends this modern life-style choice to a demographic, which he labels as “singletons”. At a recent keynote presentation to the Urban Land Institute, he discussed how this trend is both modern and perhaps primarily urban (New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC have among the highest percentages of single households, each approaching 50%), comparing the change in American cities to existing trends in European cities like London, Paris, and Stockholm (where these percentages reach 60%). He points out how an increasingly affluent urban demographic are choosing to buy their freedom and independence, in the form of domestic privacy. He suggests that a rise in women’s economic independence, technological advances (i.e. internet, social media), revitalized city centers, and longer life expectancy of seniors (paired with social security and larger pensions) all play important roles in both allowing and making more attractive the opportunity to live by oneself.

So, while single-parent families can often indicate broken homes and economic disadvantage, as is the case in many lower-income neighborhoods across the country – and as we discussed in a previous post – Klinenberg would suggest that economic advantages might also find people living uncoupled and unwed, however, as a product of affluence rather than an indicator of distress.

So what does Klinenberg’s urban theory look like on the map? How significantly are American “singletons” really clustering in big cities across the country? PolicyMap has a number of datasets from the 2010 US Census, listed under the ‘DEMOGRAPHICS’ tab, relevant to household size and family type. Take a look at the map of 1-person households by county and state. Though single person households appear more common across the mid-west and high plains (hint: these are also areas with some of the highest concentrations of seniors), 2000-2010 percent change values show greater increases in single-person households nearer to the larger coastal, southern and northwest cities, suggesting that Klinenberg’s analysis may indeed be spatial.