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It’s 7.30pm on a Wednesday night and Alex Henderson can think of nothing more appealing than her couch, a glass of red wine and an episode of Mad Men. After a long and trying day at work, and a quick drink at the pub with friends, the 29-year-old graphic designer lets out an audible sigh as she opens the door of her inner-city studio apartment. Placing her handbag, keys and umbrella on an armchair strategically placed at the front door as a convenient holdall, she starts peeling off layers of clothing.
By the time she’s in the kitchen searching for the half-full bottle of red, she’s down to bra, undies and tights. She hears the opening beats of “Party Rock Anthem” on her iPod and cranks up the volume for a spontaneous private party. There is no chance of anyone walking in on her because, like a growing number of Australians, Alex lives on her own. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s being described as the biggest social revolution since the baby boomer generation. Almost two million Australians live alone, with solo dwellers the fastest-growing housing demographic in the country. In fact, by 2026, the single-person household is predicted to eclipse the number of nuclear families in Australia.
“I have lived by myself for the past couple of years," says Alex (now fully dressed), scanning her small and quirkily decorated bolthole in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. “Three of my closest friends also live by themselves. We all could have hooked up and lived together, but separately, we each came to the conclusion that there was something to love about living alone. It’s so grown-up and totally independent. My mum can’t believe we all aren’t saving money by sharing a place, but for me it’s perfect.’’
A growing global trend
US sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise And Surprising Appeal Of Living Alone (Penguin, $44.99), says Alex and her friends reflect a global trend, which has seen a surge of almost 50 per cent* in the number of solo dwellers internationally over the past 15 years. Klinenberg says this increase in solo dwellers is a trend born out of choice, not circumstance. “People who live alone are opting to do so,” he says. “Today, large numbers of people live alone wherever and whenever they can afford to do so.”
Victoria Judge couldn’t agree more. The 36-year-old marketing consultant has been a committed solo dweller for the past 15 years. She bought her first home after graduating from university, when she received financial help from her grandparents, and apart from one regrettable short-lived stint with a moody flatmate, she can’t imagine it any other way, talking passionately of how the personal space and freedom refuels and energises her spirit.
“Living alone is empowering and healthy for me,’’ asserts Victoria, while lounging happily in her cane hanging chair. “I need time and space to decompress and unwind, and living on my own gives me the opportunity to do this – which in turn means that I find it easier to connect with others. When you’re comfortable in your own skin and you’re generally happy with your life, your connections become easier and more natural.’’
It’s a learning curve that Samantha Brown is only just beginning to appreciate. After her two-year relationship broke up in August 2011, the 27-year-old managing director of a coaching and seminar company underwent a radical change, not only moving from the suburbs to the inner city, but swapping states. Samantha went from sharing a four-bedroom house in the outskirts of Melbourne complete with a partner, a cat and a dog, to living alone for the first time, in a one-bedroom apartment in inner Sydney. Though she recognises she is still transitioning, she is vehement the biggest plus so far is the abandonment of compromise.
“What I’m really enjoying is the opportunity to focus on myself and live on my own terms,’’ she reveals. “When you’re in a relationship, particularly as a woman, you give a lot. You have to support your partner, take on the bulk of the daily chores of cooking and cleaning, organising your social life, even being the one that initiates conversation.
“Now, I please myself. My previous partners were both big meat eaters who loved takeaway, whereas I’m into healthy eating. I would compromise and cook what they liked – now I don’t have to.’’ She says the growing sense of self-realisation and unexplored potential has fuelled other unexpected projects.
“I realised I used to hold back in a lot of other areas of my life, such as my career. Now, I’ve started my own events and conference business, as I’ve had evenings and weekends free to really focus.’’
One of the most defining elements of this new generation of solo dwellers is the fact they are not defined by their relationship status. Klinenberg makes a point of saying they are far from the stereotype of atomised, disengaged loners who spend nights hunched over a litre of ice-cream and the TV remote, and are, in fact, social creatures who are just as likely to be single as in a relationship. Which is why he has named this burgeoning demographic force “solitaires” – they might live alone, but they are not necessarily single.
Vida Redoblado, 27, is a communications manager and happily in a relationship. She has lived in her one-bedroom apartment in inner Sydney’s Ultimo for a year now. She admitted she contemplated purchasing a bigger place and having a flatmate to help out with the bills, but realised that “while I’m a very extroverted person, I wanted the opportunity to be able to retreat from the world’’ and despite the relationship, can’t see her domestic arrangements changing anytime soon.
“My boyfriend, Peter, has his own place nearby," she reveals, pointing out of the window to the sprawling array of new apartment blocks that have emerged over the past decade in this former industrial hub. “We don’t really have a routine, but he visits me more than I visit him. I’ll admit that it was difficult at first sharing my space with someone. Even now, when Peter sits on my couch with chips or crackers, I still remind him to watch the crumbs! It’s been a compromising journey, but I guess that’s how it works with all relationships.
“I wanted to live close to work, the city, close to a shopping centre, cinemas, cafes and restaurants and that’s what I’ve got. My friend lives on the floor above me and I have other friends who live close by, so I’m not socially isolated, but most importantly, I still have my own time. I don’t want this to change even though I’m in a relationship.’’
Vida’s set-up reflects research, which declares the home-alone generation are far from lonely. Solo dwellers are socially adept, and in fact often have a better social life than those who live with others, according to Klinenberg. He found half of the 300 interviewees for his book complained not about loneliness, but of over-socialisation.
“My book was originally going to be called Alone In America, and I thought it would be about how disconnected we’ve become,” explains Klinenberg. “Then I did the research, and I discovered how wrong my premise was. Cities have so many people who live alone that move to certain neighbourhoods so they can be alone, together, surrounded by others who are also seeking companionship.”
Vida agrees this was certainly the case for her. “Initially, there was a period of readjustment and, at times, sure I felt lonely. My strategy was to only spend minimal time alone at home, so I was spending a lot of time out socialising. But, thankfully, that changed after a couple of months as it was exhausting. “But as I became more comfortable, I had a realisation: it’s my place, I designed it, and I’m paying a fortune to live in it, so enjoy it!
Socially, I’m more relaxed as I don’t have worry about waking anyone else up if I come home later and it’s easier to invite people over, as I don’t have to worry about the schedules of any potential roommates.”
For Samantha, her new living arrangement has defined the way she connects with others. “I’m continually building a stronger and tighter supportive circle around me to fill the various roles that a partner or housemate would normally fill,’’ she explains. “Whether that’s emotional support or someone to just go out and have fun with, I get to choose who fills those roles, and at what moments I need them in my life. I’ve also become much more social on a frequent basis. I never used to go out during the week, but now it’s become the norm to connect with friends for a midweek dinner or wine. I’m free just to see where the night and my life takes me.”
The effect of single households
According to Klinenberg, this boom in single-person households will have far-reaching consequences that we are only just beginning to grapple with. The implications of this tectonic social shift go far beyond the sales figures of Lean Cuisines and Sex And The City DVD box sets. The bottom line is there is a booming number of affluent single-person householders that government and business have yet to tap into. “Global business is way behind the curve here because they continue marketing to a world of couples and families that no longer exists in such great numbers,” comments Klinenberg, who estimates the solo dollar currently accounts for 35 per cent of consumer spending in the US. “Businesses are missing a chance to reach one of the fastest-growing markets out there.”
Up for grabs in this brave new solo world are the ways we connect, communicate, live and shop, as the market responds to the evolving needs of solo dwellers.
Apart from the increase in higher-density housing, some of the expected flow-on trends in the coming years include a boom in service industries tailored to the needs of solo dwellers (think dog walkers, dry cleaners and food delivery services); a whole new pantheon of consumer electronics designed for solitaires (robot pets, anyone?); new ways to communicate and find others, such as social discovery apps; and even supermarket shelves stocked with smaller or individually portioned food products.
Victoria maintains the advancement of social media has already impacted positively on living alone. This was driven home when she recently slipped down the stairs while at home, and injured her foot. Although no major physical harm occurred, the incident forced her to face some fears.
“What if the accident had been worse and I’d knocked myself out? How long would it have taken for someone to find me?’’ Then Victoria concludes, “I spend a lot of time using social media, so I’m sure someone would have twigged if I didn’t post on Twitter or Facebook.’’
Samantha agrees that the seclusion inherent with her lifestyle can be polarising. “Most of the time I absolutely love it, but there are times, like rainy Sunday mornings after a big weekend out, when it can be isolating. Also, I’ve had moments of waking up in the middle of the night after hearing a noise and getting paranoid because I’m alone in the apartment.’’ But she admits that this has improved over time, and points out there are plenty of downsides to sharing your home with flatmates.
Even Victoria worries that “a certain selfishness creeps in when you don’t have to compromise, but if I fell head over heels in love I could be open to sharing my home with a man. But he couldn’t use my expensive hair conditioner,’’ she adds, laughing.
Society is only just to beginning to catch-up with, and digest, how this fundamental demographic about-turn will impact our lives and communities, but Klinenberg is optimistic it will ultimately be for the better.
“The world is changing and solo living is part of that change – and none of this needs to be a problem,” he concludes. “Society hasn’t caught up with my standpoint, but the debates are beginning to change things, I hope.”
■ In 2006, 27 per cent of Australian households contained one person.
■ This demographic is projected to grow from 1.9 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2031.
■ In urban hotspots, the picture becomes even clearer: Perth’s inner-city one-person households stands at around 63 per cent, Adelaide at 44 per cent, Darwin at 43 per cent, Melbourne at 38 per cent, Sydney at 36 per cent and Brisbane at 31 per cent.
■ In Sweden, 60 per cent of households comprise one person, Norway has 40 per cent, the UK 29 per cent and the US 28 per cent.
■ The fastest-growing areas of solo dwellers are in China, India and Brazil.
■ Of those living alone, 57 per cent do so by choice, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.