That Peter York's got a lot to answer for. All those years ago when he amused himself by chronicling the doings of genuine social phenomena like the Mayfair Mercenary and the Sloane Ranger, he probably hadn't the slightest suspicion that he had sown a self-seeding hardy annual that would pop up in every newspaper and magazine for the next 20 years. Suddenly all human life was being boiled down to a catchy nickname and a box full of bullet points: yuppies, guppies, dinkies, new men, new lads, lipstick lesbians, anoraks, social X-rays, thirtysomethings, Essex men, ladies who lunch, trustafarians and, now, lone rangers.

These, for those of you who like a little less water with your social anthropology, are a growing band of young women with good jobs, nice homes, fast cars, lively social lives and no lasting emotional attachments. You can hardly unwrap your chips this week without stumbling on a piece codifying this supposedly Nineties phenomenon. Phone books have been mined for single women willing to tell the world about the joys and sorrows of what used to be known as spinsterhood.

This week's flurry of journalistic activity has been excited by an article in Harpers & Queen magazine pinned to the publication of Yvonne Roberts's novel The Trouble With Single Women.

A lot of the fuss centres on whether a single woman with a good fortune is in want of any kind of long-term emotional life. As with any discussion of the chosen lifestyles of women, a row starts immediately between those inhabiting the different camps, such as pro and anti working motherhood, on the assumption that there is a right and a wrong choice. Now it's the turn of the sad singles/smug marrieds debate. Those in favour of this merry spinsterhood sing the praises of jolly evenings boozing with a sisterly network of real friends who can commiserate about anything from a bad hair day to a one-night stand. Others wonder snidely if this carefree image is merely a post-rationalisation by dysfunctional emotional retards who can't hold down a relationship. The little devil on my shoulder asks whether the women interviewed in this week's newspapers are entirely suitable candidates for cohabitation. They talk of the men they have road-tested and whinge disappointedly about how they failed to measure up: not rich enough, irritating habits, failure to meet the checklist of needs that the long-term single woman seems to have nailed to the fridge. Are they as selfish and self-obsessed as they read? Or are they just out of practice at the fine art of living with other people? People will put up with anything from their friends: foul habits, bad manners, forgotten birthdays, anything in the name of lifelong friendship. But two weeks into a sexual liaison and the demands kick in. Romantic love comes complete with a template for perfection; friendships make up their own rules.

When reproached by the apparent success of other people's relationships the Lone Rangers' apologists seem to argue that married people with children discuss nothing more interesting than infant diarrhoea and spend their leisure hours squabbling in the minor electricals department of John Lewis. This kind of mud-slinging is no more helpful or accurate than to suggest that a single person whose Friday night plans misfire will spend her evening curled up in front of Dangerfield with a carton of Marks and Spencer's custard.

Single people are good for the economy. The rise and rise of single occupancy housing is a demographic fact that is a source of intense satisfaction to toaster manufacturers everywhere. Bars do good business. But is it a good idea for so many people to lead lives in which their only permanent connection with the outside world is the telephone answering machine? Bridget Jones has a recurring nightmare that her body will be discovered weeks after her death half eaten by a pet. This is, to put it mildly, a worst-case scenario, but what happens when you get Johannesburg flu?

What if the lone ranger were a man? Late thirties, lives alone, good job, nice car, bachelor pad, obsessed with his body, lots of drinking mates, no commitment? He'd be called a playboy (or possibly a confirmed bachelor). Married men would envy him, his mother would nag him to death and wise women who knew him would advise their friends to steer well clear. Anyone who has lived to please themselves for that long is going to be a complete bugger to live with. The alarming thing about the singles phenomenon is not that these people aren't fixed up but that they don't share their everyday lives with another person. Flat-sharing is dismissed as a transitional arrangement undertaken by young people who don't qualify for a mortgage. In fact, in the right company (and the right flat) shacking up with a few like-minded souls is a very enjoyable business. Yet instead of a proliferation of roomy apartments with lots of bathrooms, the property market is awash with studios to allow the young urban professional to pace the hardwood flooring in solitary splendour.

And so on to the big question: What about old age? The years go by, the exercise machine gets less and less use, the doctor tells you to cut down on the drink, you slip and break a hip on the gleaming parquet and suddenly it's twilight home time. I'm not suggesting that a life partner is a cheap alternative to residential care but it beats arguing with the radio. There is more to companionship than seeing friends every evening. Long-term partners provide an in-house supply of sex, sympathy and shelves - and shopping for these is a waste of good drinking time.