Joan Smith: Don't demonise singles: there's a lot of us about

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Are they going to be issued with cats? More middle-aged men are living alone, according to new figures, and it goes without saying that they must be just as miserable as all the middle-aged single women we've heard about for years.

These newly single men in their late 40s to early 60s face a lonely future, according to the popular press, and the really good news is that it's all their own fault. Yes, once again, the baby boomers have proved themselves – I should say ourselves, since I'm one of them – selfish and useless at relationships.

More than two million of us now face a lonely old age "with no relationships", according to gleeful newspaper reports last week; what else do we deserve after half a lifetime of enjoying ourselves and showing a marked reluctance to get married? I suppose we'll just have to count the passing years, gazing enviously at the happy families whose lives are chronicled in self-congratulatory detail by so many lifestyle columnists.

Actually, you don't have to be a single baby boomer to rejoice in not being entirely focused on people with titles like Him Indoors, Senior Daughter and Second Son; the comings and goings of other people's children are not at all fascinating, and neither are endless accounts of the trials of "juggling" and "work-life balance". Figures showing that the number of people living alone in middle age has risen by almost a third in a decade (to 2.3 million, according to the Office for National Statistics) are empirical evidence of changing lifestyles. But despite almost wholly negative coverage, the figures say nothing about how the people concerned feel about their living arrangements.

First and foremost among the dodgy assumptions is that no one would ever choose to live alone. The range of attitudes to single life is much wider than we're led to believe, and hugely affected by economic circumstances; living alone in a comfortable home, with room for friends to stay, is a different prospect from struggling to survive on a low income in a cramped flat. Single life is more expensive, but that's also the case for people who ha have chosen the living-together-apart option – having a partner but keeping separate establishments.

A fifth of women now reach the age of 40 without giving birth and for many it's a positive choice; my observations of older friends who don't have children do not suggest that they're lonelier than those who have. Living alone is different, requiring a degree of thinking ahead that couples tend not to bother with. But its pleasures, such as spending an entire day in bed reading novels and eating chocolate, are overlooked. So is the freedom it offers: for my parents' generation, marital misery stayed behind closed doors and we simply don't know how many unhappy spouses would have left if they had the option.

There's a ranking of living arrangements which puts marriage at the top, cohabitation a long way down the list and single life (or being a single parent) a very poor third. I don't think this reflects the experience of real people, as opposed to stereotypes, and I also don't think we're going to return to a society composed almost entirely of married, heterosexual couples with children. One way forward would be to stop demonising single people and find out what would make single life easier, although I can imagine the outcry that would follow. Excuse me now, but I need to go and have a few words with the Senior Cat.;

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