The single society

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