SHOULD Scotland's rapidly growing number of one-person households be seen as a sign of freedom or an erosion of society?
The latest analysis of the 2011 Census data uncovered an extraordinary rise in numbers living by themselves. In 1961 they accounted for just 14% of households. Today that figure is 35%, the largest single category of household type. It is the first time ever that people living alone make up more than a third of Scottish households. These solo households tend to be concentrated in Scotland's cities, especially Glasgow where they account for 43% of households, making up more than one in five of the city's population.
The American writer Pearl Buck once asserted: "The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being...His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration." Today that view would be regarded as a cruel caricature of living by oneself.
The most obvious reason for the rise is Scotland's changing demographic. Since 2001 the number of over-80s has risen by a phenomenal 19%. As women continue to outlive men, much of this increase consists of widows and spinsters. Clearly this has serious implications for every aspect of public policy from housing provision to rubbish collections but particularly for NHS planning and the provision of free personal care.
However, solo living has come a long way from the stereotype of the elderly lady with a cat and a canary. The numbers have been boosted also by increased mobility, divorcees and the longer periods young people are spending childless and unmarried. Indeed, many no longer view their solo status as either negative or transitory but as a symbol of modern economic independence. In particular, women, who might have been locked into unhappy relationships by financial dependence in previous generations, now have real choices and are opting to exercise them.
In The Herald today, Professor Robert Wright of Strathclyde Business School finds a false correlation between living alone and loneliness. Extended lifespans combined with economic freedom are creating a more fluid cycle of relationships in which it sometimes makes more sense to live alone, even for those who are romatically attached. Unfettered by family ties or the intrusion of flatmates, city dwellers can easily extend their homes beyond their own walls into the shared urban spaces of parks, gyms, shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and cyberspace. And far from being the "selfish singles" sometimes depicted, many find more time to do voluntary work in their communities and support older or disabled family members than siblings with childcare commitments.
This is a trend that should perhaps be embraced because, like it or not, it is here to stay.