You know the type. Eleanor Rigby, who picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been. Austin Powers, proud owner of a Lava lamp, lush chest hair and an equal-opportunity libido. Bridget Jones, of the wobbly ego and much-watched answering machine. The Single, long a stock figure in story, song and personal ads, was traditionally someone at the margins of society: a figure of fun, pity or awe.
Those days are gone. In the place of withered spinsters and bachelors are people like Elizabeth de Kergorlay, a 29-year-old Parisian banker who views her independence and her own apartment as the spoils of professional success. Scooting around Paris in her Golf GTI, one hand on the wheel and the other clutching her cell phone, de Kergorlay pauses between calls to rave about life alone. "I'm not antisocial," she says. "I love people. But living alone gives me the time and space for self-reflection. I've got the choice and the privacy to grow as a human being."
As the sages would say, we are all ultimately alone. But an increasing number of Europeans are choosing to be so at an ever earlier age. This isn't the stuff of gloomy philosophical meditations, but a fact of Europe's new economic landscape, embraced by demographers, real-estate developers and ad executives alike. The shift away from family life to solo lifestyle, observes French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, is part of the "irresistible momentum of individualism" over the last century. The communications revolution, the shift from a business culture of stability to one of mobility and the mass entry of women into the work force have wreaked havoc on Europeans' private lives. More and more of them are remaining on their own: they're living longer, divorcing more and marrying later--if at all. British marriage rates are the lowest in 160 years of records. INSEE, France's National Institute of Statistics, reports that the number of French people living alone doubled between 1968 and 1990.
The home-alone phenomenon remains an urban and a Northern European trend: people who live in rural areas--as well as the Spaniards, Greeks and Irish--tend to stick to families. By contrast, the Scandinavians, Dutch and Germans like to live alone: 40 percent of all Swedes live alone, as do 7 million Britons--three times as many as 40 years ago. According to the recent report "Britain in 2010" by Richard Scase, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Kent, single-person households will outnumber families and couples within a decade. In London's tonier neighborhoods like Kensington and Chelsea, about half of all households are people living alone. In Germany this year, 56-year-old divorcee Bernd Klosterfelde produced a CD called "Alone No More." Featuring 15 tracks of household noises with titles like "Nothing on TV; At Least the Chips Are Good" and "The Fridge Is Finally Full Again," it promises people who live alone "62 minutes of togetherness."
Europe's new economic climate has largely fostered the trend toward independence. The current generation of home-aloners came of age during Europe's shift from social democracy to the sharper, more individualistic climate of American-style capitalism. Raised in an era of privatization and increased consumer choice, today's tech-savvy workers have embraced a free market in love as well as economics. Modern Europeans are rich enough to afford to live alone, and temperamentally independent enough to want to do so. A recent poll by the Institut Francais d'Opinion Publique, the French affiliate of the Gallup poll, found that 58 percent of French respondents viewed living alone as a choice, not an obligation. Other European singles agree. "I've always wanted to be free to go on adventures," says Iris Eppendorf, who lives by herself in Berlin. "I hate dreary, boring, bourgeois living--it's not interesting."
Once upon a time, people who lived alone tended to be those on either side of marriage--twentysomething professionals or widowed senior citizens. While pensioners, particularly elderly women, make up a hefty proportion of those living alone, the newest crop of singles are high earners in their 30s and 40s who increasingly view living alone as a lifestyle choice. "The Swedish word for someone living alone used to be ensam, which had connotations of being lonely," notes Eva Sandsteadt, author of "Living Alone in Sweden." "It was conceived as a negative--dark and cold, while being together suggested warmth and light. But then came along the idea of singles. They were young, beautiful, strong! Now, young people want to live alone."
The booming economy means they are working harder than ever. And that doesn't leave much room for relationships. Pimpi Arroyo, a 35-year-old composer who lives alone in a house in Paris, says he hasn't got time to get lonely because he has too much work. "I have deadlines which would make life with someone else fairly difficult." Only an Ideal Woman would make him change his lifestyle, he says. Kaufmann, author of a recent book called "The Single Woman and Prince Charming," thinks this fierce new individualism means that people expect more and more of mates, so relationships don't last long--if they start at all. Eppendorf, a blond Berliner with a deep tan and chronic wanderlust, teaches grade school in the mornings. In the afternoon she sunbathes or sleeps, resting up for going dancing. Just shy of 50, she says she'd never have wanted to do what her mother did--give up a career to raise a family. Instead, "I've always done what I wanted to do: live a self-determined life."
A self-determined life doesn't come cheap. In capitals like Stockholm, Rome or Berlin, high rents mean that only big earners can afford their own housing. Proportionally, more professionals live alone: in France, one in five career women lives alone, compared with one in 10 working women. The French government recently allotted nearly 77 million francs to people in their early 20s who wanted to move away from home, but couldn't afford to. Parisian banker de Kergorlay's apartment allows her the luxury of being able to "read, cook, write and entertain without having to make compromises."
Such freedom can be addictive, particularly for women, notes sociologist Kaufmann. "Women are still expected to be the housewife in couples," he notes. "It's very hard for women to fight against this idea, so the only way they can attain sexual equality is to live alone." De Kergorlay hasn't ruled out marriage, but wouldn't give up freedom for a man. "If I were to get married," she explains, "I would still want my own room--an escape zone where I can be by myself."
Millions of singles yearning for escape zones for solitude are straining Europe's city housing markets. Over the next 15 years, the British population is set to decline, but the number of houses will rise by 25 percent--an increase largely accounted for by single people. Southeastern England is undergoing a major building boom: the British government has authorized the construction of 860,000 new homes, mostly for the middle classes. Real-estate brokers note a rise in the number of young singles who work mad hours and treat their homes like dorms. In London, luxury complexes with tiny flats, gyms and easy access to urban pleasures are springing up for young and driven professionals. Single-person households promote gentrification: when singles move into the neighborhood, say geographers, latte bars, gyms and restaurants are sure to follow, and local music, theater and art galleries thrive. "Singles are a real benefit to French cultural life," says Olivier Donna, of the French Ministry of Culture and Communications. "Without them, you are left with couples and families who prefer to stay at home and watch TV."
Women, it seems, enjoy singledom more than do men. According to Scase, single women--unlike men--tend to live near single friends, forming networks that serve as neofamilies. Restaurants, gyms and latte bars function as living rooms, as do pubs--a trend that's made young urban women a mainstay for the British drinks industry over the past five years. By contrast, the bachelor tends to stay in. "The man who lives alone is very much the sad case," says Scase. "They really do watch videos and drink beer."
For some young urbanites, renting "The Matrix" and reaching for a lager is a much-needed escape--particularly for those in New Economy careers like media, advertising or information technology. "My whole job is communicating," says Katherine Edwards, whose job as public-affairs manager for the British supermarket chain Tesco takes her out to parties and dinners a couple of times a week. "The last thing I want to do when I come home is communicate." For Richard Moore, managing director of a sports-promotions company, his 1870s south London house is a refuge from work. The peace and quiet is such a luxury, says Moore, that "I'll live alone until I meet the girl I'm going to marry."
Living alone doesn't mean living without romance. Jan Trost, a sociologist at the University of Uppsala, has studied Europe's rising incidence of what he calls LAT, or living alone together, in which committed couples opt for separate residences. In an increasingly mobile work culture, professionals often work in separate cities or even countries, using e-mail, phones and meetings on weekends to sustain relationships. Married types who have bickered once too often about toothpaste caps or dust bunnies are opting to live apart in peace rather than together in stress. And divorced or widowed people who hook up later in life tend to have set ways and long personal histories with the requisite complications: "'Should my piano or your piano be the piano?'" says Trost, imagining a hypothetical discussion. " 'And photos: my grandchildren or yours?' It's simpler to keep your own house."
The move from cozy families to urban singledom opens new vistas for marketers. In the past, the holy grail for advertisers was the couple with 2.3 children. No longer, argues Scase. Today's companies should think of high-earning singles as a key market. Gone are the days of the clamorous family gathered around a table groaning with home-cooked food. A third of Britons eat dinner alone at least four times a week--and prefer eating alone to eating with others, according to a British National Opinion Poll. Small wonder that Britain's market for ready-made convenience foods has doubled in the last five years.
A host of other singles services have sprung up, from dogwalkers to alarm systems to agencies that will water your plants or bring you aspirin and coffee when you're hung over. Compact cars and mobile phones, the major props of modern European city life, have solid markets among European singles. Bouygues Telecom/France Telecom estimates that a hefty percentage of cell-phone users are young home-aloners; a quarter of Smart cars, tiny vehicles designed for city driving, are sold to twenty- and thirtysomething singles who "churn" or change partners instead of settling down. It's a marketing man's dream: a demographic with the anxieties of teenagers and the bank accounts of the middle-aged. Instead of saving for their kids' college education, the home-aloners are prepared to fork out on personal-fitness trainers, seaweed cellulite wraps and stiletto heels. "You have to be concerned about presenting yourself if you live in a more mobile society," says Scase. "Appearance is no longer a young person's concern. And [singles] have the money to spend on it."
Living alone may bring freedom, but not necessarily buoyant health or better sex. A recent Dutch study of 19,000 people found chronic disease was 30 percent higher among singles. "Married people are healthier," says the University of Rotterdam's Inez Joung, who conducted the study. "They smoke and drink less. Single and divorced people are more likely to commit suicide and have liver disease, diabetes or lung cancer." The Playboy magazine promise of singledom as a portal to sublime sex doesn't hold, according to Hamburg University sexologist Gunter Schmidt. Having studied the sex lives of 3,000 young Germans, he estimates that 90 percent of all heterosexual sex occurs in long-term relationships. Half of the young singles surveyed weren't having any sex at all. And good sex, according to Schmidt, pretty much remains the privilege of the attached: only 40 percent of singles said they enjoyed sex, compared with 80 percent of people in relationships. "The sexual world of singles is rather gray," says Schmidt. "They make a huge effort to produce little sex that's not even satisfying."
Life can even get tougher as home-aloners age. Once retired, work's not there to provide a steady income or social life. Bad health and fear of crime can turn freedom into frightening solitude. In Sweden, groups of individuals have started about 50 cohousing projects designed for singles or couples in the second half of their lives. At Fardknappen, a state-built group home in Stockholm for people "in the second half of life," the feel is less that of an old person's home than a college dorm, with its buzzing modems, cheeky political cartoons and blue-jeaned, sandal-shod residents. Nightly group dinners aren't mandatory, though people do have to pitch in and cook for a week every two months. And they're worth going to, to hear Fardknappen's 55 residents buzz with tales of recent trips to jazz clubs, to Cuba and South India.
The fusion of independence and community for older people has proved popular: the seven-year old group has a waiting list of 75, and visitors from Japan and the United States tramp through to learn about the Swedish method of aging gracefully. "Living like this enables old people to have freedom," explains Mette Kjorstad, a divorcee who moved to Fardknappen after her two kids left home. "And it's a great relief for people's children--they're free of a lot of guilt." Guilt-free families? Now that's a sign of a seismic societal shift if ever there was one.