The single society

People living on their own - divorcees, single parents, affluent yuppies - are revolutionising our culture, says Glenda Cooper

Sainsbury's announces a reduction on its Chicken Tikka Meal for One. A year's supply is snatched off the shelves in under two weeks.

If any more proof were needed of the rise of single-person power, it could only be the introduction of the best idea since sliced bread - the half-loaf, created by Hovis for single people.

We have become so concerned about the crisis of the traditional family unit that we have paid less attention to a quieter but no less profound revolution in our culture: its singlisation.

The rise of the single person is one of the most powerful forces shaping our society. Manufacturers and retailers are changing goods and services to suit single people. Estimates of our housing needs and so the amount of rural land we will need for homes is vitally affected by the rising number of single-person households.

More profoundly even than that, the idea that single people of all ages are the essential units of our society, rather than families, challenges many of our central assumptions about what holds society together.

The rise of the single person is inseparable from the crisis of the traditional family. Twenty or 30 years ago the two-plus-two family was assumed to be the norm. Young people might be single for a limited period while they "experimented" with life, before they started courting and settled down. But apart from that, singleness was an oddity thrust upon people by tragedy as widows and widowers, or the calamity of divorce.

Not so these days. More and more people are living alone out of choice. According to a report published today by Mintel, the market research group, the number of people living alone will increase by 17 per cent by 2,000, by which time eight million households will consist of people living by themselves. The group with the highest growth will be affluent men and women under 35 who have never married, the kind of people who are the heroes of This Life, the BBC2 soap opera about young lawyers, which started this week.

But it is not just young singles who are creating the new culture. Older people are living longer. Women have a life expectancy of 78.5 years compared with 73 some 30 years ago. An official population trends report yesterday suggested that four in 10 marriages will end in divorce: more people are having spells of being single in middle-age. Being single is something that can now happen to people several times in their life at different ages.

Yet single people are not just the aspirational heart of our society. There are also worries that a society of atomised individuals will fragment. Single people are indeed blamed for many of society's ills: single young men commit a high proportion of crimes; single parents are blamed by the right for failing children; the growing number of frail elderly people living alone is one of the greatest burdens upon the welfare state; and in the wake of the Dunblane killings the sad loner has become an ever more threatening image.

What is clear is that single culture is now deeply embedded in a way that it wasn't even 15 years ago.

Half the single people interviewed by Mintel describe themselves as "happy". Six out of 10 people living alone enjoy the increased freedom it brings and more than half think it gives them a sense of achievement. On the drawbacks, only a third find it expensive and three in 10 say it is sometimes lonely.

As consumers they are pampered, especially the young. Manufacturers are rushing to woo them. Nearly two thirds of single women and 54 per cent of single men are in the affluent ABC1 economic groups. Three-quarters of single men and two-thirds of women work full time.

The most graphic example of their spending power is the rise of the ready- cooked meal. Britons spend more than pounds 1m every day on chilled foods or meals for one. Industry analysts expect this to rise by 10 per cent this year.

Sainsbury's says that its sales to singles had gone up so dramatically that it has introduced 200 ready meal lines in the past year. Angela Hughes, consumer research manager for Mintel, explains: "Single portions have got more popular. The half-loaf by Hovis is a great innovation. Five years ago smaller dishwashers and smaller fridges would have been a rarity but now they are quite common."

Singles also lie behind the growth of the leisure economy, now one of the country's largest employers. Singles have on average eight hours more leisure time a week than their married counterparts, and they use it. While they tend to read more, they also go out more.

This in part explains the resurgence of the cinema. In the past 10 years cinema audiences have doubled from around 50 million to 120 million a year, and young people are among the most avid cinema-goers, with 72 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds going at least once every three months.

Young singles are also more demanding consumers. They are the main force behind the emergence of more environmentally friendly products: they are more likely to eat organic foods, fresh fruit and wholemeal bread when they are not gobbling ready meals.

Yet one of the most dramatic changes the rise of the singles will bring will be on the future of housing policy. The Government has increased its estimate for the number of new homes needed in England over the next 15 years by almost a million households - which represents a conurbation as large as greater Birmingham.

In the past five years the Department of the Environment's projections for the increase in the number of households by the year 2011 have been increased from 15 per cent to 18.5 per cent. The largest increase is among single-person households.

If these latest estimates are correct, then controversies over where to build new homes in the next century will be fierce. Single young people may be environmentally aware but the rise of single culture may pose huge environmental costs.

That only goes to prove how central single culture will be to our politics in future. Singledom is both something we aspire to and the source of many of our ills.

The executive

Heath Bartmanis, 28, works for a recruitment agency. He recently bought a house.

I had come out of a relationship I wasn't happy in and was happy to live on my own. You set your own rules. It sounds selfish but you don't have to answer to anyone.

I've become more sociable since I was single. I go out more. I go to the cinema, the theatre. I'm not sporty. I go out with a group of friends and we've a pact that we'll stay single until the autumn.

About 90 per cent my single friends would say they are better off out of relationships. We're not unattractive, it's that we choose to be on our own. I've found it cheaper, too. You're only paying for one, you don't have to buy any presents.

I'm open-minded about the future. I've spent the past six or seven years in relationships and I'd like to spend some time on my own. Your principles and values tend to fall by the wayside over a number of years of going out with someone. I would like some time to find myself.

The television man

Theo Short, a 27-year-old studio manager with BBC World Service. He bought a home in Kingston-on-Thames last year.

A few decades ago I would have stayed at home until I got married.

Being single does give me a sense of achievement. I can make things the way I want them. Financially it's not as easy. It costs more to live alone - there's no one to share the bills.

All that stuff about fragmenting society - I travel around a lot and I think your community isn't necessarily the people on your doorstep.

The doctor

Dr Jenny Connor, 37, is a consultant radiologist in Durham. She has lived alone for 12 years.

I would never have ended up doing half the things I wanted to do if I'd settled down ages ago. I was too busy thoroughly enjoying myself.

I live in this huge, wonderful farmhouse, which I bought myself. If I'd been with someone, then they might have dissuaded me.

I have a lot of single friends and they tend to be independently minded women. I think men are terrified of independent, successful, financially secure women.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future