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(Published: 2012-05-27)

If you live alone, you’re not alone.

During the past half-century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people—at all ages, in all places—have begun settling down as singletons.

The number of people living alone globally has skyrocketed, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011—an increase of around 80% in 15 years. 31% of Japanese households are single-person; 34% in the UK. Nearly half of the population of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark live alone; in Stockholm the number rises to 66%. Here in America, 32.7 million people live alone. In Seattle, 42% are single person households, while in Manhattan, the number rises to 48%.

What’s driving this drastic social countertrend? Until the middle of the 20th century, most people married young and parted only at death. If a spouse died, it was customary to either remarry quickly, or move in with extended family.

Today, it’s a far different story. Millennials are delaying marriage until well into their 30’s, if they marry at all. This is partly because of economic forces, as well as social shifts. Where it used to be a badge of dishonor to live alone, today it’s quite the opposite. To many it’s worth the extra cost for the freedom and anonymity associated with living alone.

Another factor driving the rise of single households is the high divorce rate among Boomers, which has doubled over the past 20 years. A “Single in Retirement” report shows women often are the ones to initiate older divorces. That’s partly because today, more women Boomers have their own assets and pensions, and are more likely to seek freedom after years of having assumed conventional roles defined by society.

Some sociologists speculate that the rise of living alone is a sign of fragmentation; others say that the trend is a result of the rising ‘cult of the individual.’ Ironically, the communications revolution, brought about by technology, allows people to experience the pleasure of connection even when they’re living alone.

Businesses are waking up to this important social shift. They’ve discovered that singletons are more likely to eat out, exercise, and attend public events and classes than their married counterparts. Food and beverage companies especially are beginning to change their marketing strategies, no longer focusing solely on families. (Nestle research shows that 90% of its Lean Cuisine meals were eaten alone.)

To Greta Garbo, solitude was a mantra; to Hendry David Thoreau, it was an ideal. To Howard Hughes, solitude was an obsession. To businesses today, ‘alone together’ is an opportunity to rethink what flying solo means to their bottom line.

Alone Sweet Home

Alone together

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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