Living alone can have a variety of connotations. For some, it represents freedom and financial independence, the opportunity to avoid having to make compromises. However, for others living alone may be synonymous with loneliness and isolation within society.
TV and film have presented us with a conflicted view of living alone. Popular shows including ‘The Big Bang Theory’ derive their comedy from the pitfalls of living with difficult or inflexible roommates whereas other hit-shows like the timeless favourite ‘Friends’ emphasise the potential fun of living with your best friends. Equally, romantic comedies often begin with sad scenes depicting the isolation of living alone as a singleton in a big city – like the iconic comedic shot of Bridget Jones singing ‘All By Myself’.
Undoubtedly many around the world may want to live alone but simply don’t have the option. The ability to pay 100% of the rent on an apartment demonstrates a certain financial stability which many of us dream of. Despite the recent recession, in many countries property prices remain high, so getting onto the property ladder as a single income can seem impossible. In this case, a high level of single-occupancy housing in a city can indicate either lower property costs or a higher net income.
Increasingly living alone in your 20s has become a symbol of success, instead of a failure to settle down. People are getting married later in life, and even those in relationships may prefer to keep their own space (Helena Bonham-Carter and her partner Tim Burton have famously lived in adjoining houses for over 10 years, proving that you can have a successful relationship and still enjoy your own space).
These top ten countries have the highest percentage of people who live alone, whether by choice or by necessity; we’ve had a look at the demographics to get an idea of why so many people live without company in these countries.
10. Brazil, 10%
The Brazilian Amazon rainforest famously houses the ‘most isolated man on the planet’, supposed to be the last remaining member of an un-contacted tribe. As of 2007 the government enforced a 31 square mile radius around him as a ‘no logging zone’. Although he is safe from developers who may wish to destroy his forest, the man is thought to live in complete isolation (attempts to contact him have led to an agent getting shot with an arrow). Although others in Brazil obviously don’t live in such extreme solitude, there’s a surprising rise in the numbers who now opt to live alone. Although this choice to go it alone demonstrates an increasing percentage of the population are enjoying financial independence, there have been negative consequences for the infrastructure (as consumption of water and energy increases).
9. Kenya, 15%
Back in 2005 the United Nations wrote on the increasing instances of older people living alone in Kenya. Many live in squalid conditions as they slowly become unable to run a home, reliant on neighbours to check on them. Last month the Kenyan government launched the ‘expanded social protection plan’ which plans to provide over 65s with Sh2000 each month to help with living costs. This may help those living alone financially; however, retirement homes are still not an option for the majority of Kenyan citizens so loneliness in old-age continues to be a pressing problem.
8. South Africa, 24%
South Africa may now be in the news for the televised trial of Oscar Pistorius, however it may come as a surprise that around a quarter of its citizens are at home watching the trial alone. Given the country’s rapidly increasing population (which has grown by almost 10 million in the past decade) it’s surprising that there’s even the space for those who opt to live alone. Although the housing market appears to be slowing, having dropped significantly in 2008, with more and more citizens deciding to live alone the demand for properties is unlikely to wane significantly.
7. Russia, 25%
The choice of many young Russians to live alone in their 20s has contributed to a stabilised population of around 150 million (which, before the millennium, had been steadily increasing). Instead of rushing into marriage young, many chose to live alone and focus on building their careers, prioritising making enough money to support a family before looking to start one. Young professionals in Moscow particularly feel the pinch if they decide to live alone, as the city has been ranked as having one of the highest costs of living in the world.
6. Canada, 27%
In the past few years the increasing number of Canadians who live alone has preoccupied the country’s newspapers. Some understand this rise in single-occupancy dwellings to demonstrate an increasingly independent and financially secure population. However, others speculate that this shift in living arrangements reveals an ‘erosion of society’. Last year there was even a documentary made which addressed the issue (‘Flying Solo’). One reason suggested for this change in living habits has been the increasing divorce rate and declining marriage numbers. Others have speculated that a rise in social media has allowed people to live alone without feeling lonely or isolated.
5. U.S., 28%
Living alone in the US has been normalised through many of our favourite TV shows. Carrie Bradshaw in ‘Sex and the City’ demonstrated the freedom attached to having your own place without making it appear lonely or anti-social. Although those who immigrate to America prefer to live in multiple-person dwellings, American-born citizens appear to favour living alone as soon as it’s financially viable. Americans are marrying later and living longer, so the potential for living alone during your adult life has significantly increased over the past decade. Manhattan and San Francisco consist of over 40% single-person households, showing that across the country Americans just want their space.
4. Italy, 29%
Given that such a high proportion of Italians live alone, it’s no surprise that loneliness has become a problem for the country’s citizens (as has been discussed by an Amsterdam-based professor of Sociology, Theo van Tilburg). The spread of Italy’s population is vastly uneven and almost half of all citizens live in the Po Valley. Even in the densely populated areas, housing prices have dropped significantly in the last few years – falling 6.5% in 2013’s third quarter. This drop in prices allows those Italians who may have wished to live alone, but had been limited financially, to get their foot on the property ladder.
3. Japan, 31%
The average number of people per household in Tokyo has now dropped below 2, making it one of the loneliest cities in the world as the majority of Tokyoites live alone. This change in lifestyle over the last few decades has seen the Japanese government face new challenges as the demand on resources per person swells. Chillingly, the phenomenon ‘Kodokushi’ has become increasingly common (as people die alone and their bodies remain undiscovered for an extended period of time). The phrase translates into English as ‘lonely death’ and the growing demand for services to clean up the residue of decomposing corpses serves as a gruesome reminder of the perils of living alone. In Japan, the single-occupancy trend correlates with a decrease in marriage, and Japan has been listed as the country that has less sex than anywhere else in the world.
2. Britain, 34%
In modern times, long-lasting marriages in Britain are declining and correspondingly there has been a steady increase in the number of people who live alone in the UK. There have been complaints by some that those living on unemployment benefits chose to live alone as opposed to with a partner in order to secure extra benefits from the nation’s welfare system. Although young Brits may be finding it hard to get a foot on the increasingly costly property ladder – with lenders unwilling to offer mortgages after the economic downturn – those who do secure the funds are choosing to compromise on space and quality in order to live alone. Brits often seek independence as soon as they can afford it and solo living in your 20s has become common among financially independent young people.
1. Sweden, 47%
Nearly half of all Swedish households are single-occupancy. Living alone in Sweden is arguably the norm because the option is so readily available – there is an abundance of affordable single-occupancy apartments (after over 1 million housing units were built in the 60s). A prosperous welfare state also means that young Swedes can expect to move into their own apartment once they graduate high-school.
However, there are problems attached to this lonely way of living. Because of the single person trend, ‘Färdknäppen’ has been set up in Stockholm – a community-owned ‘collective house’. The concept allows Swedes to have their own apartments in addition to access to communal space, so that occupants can have the ‘best of both worlds’. Although this type of living is far from the norm in Sweden it does show the innovative solutions which are being devised for an increasingly lonely population.