If you get in a committed or even a married relationship, you might still want to have your own place.
Our latest trend report, “Meet the New Family,” examines how family is evolving, along with household makeup and interpersonal ties. While researching the rise of solo dwellers, we spoke with Bella DePaulo, an expert on the single life who works as a project scientist at UC Santa Barbara. The author of Singlism and Singled Out, DePaulo talked to us about how households are changing—not only shrinking down to one person but also encompassing multiple generations—as well as how social attitudes are shifting and what this means for marketers.
When it comes to living alone, DePaulo noted that we need to update our image of solo dwellers. For one, with technology keeping people socially connected, loneliness isn’t a defining factor. More people are joining co-housing communities so they can have friends nearby. And some committed couples choose to maintain separate residences, a phenomenon termed “living apart together.”
It’s interesting that more people are choosing to live alone even when they’re in serious relationships. Why do you think “living apart together” is growing?
People have gotten used to their privacy. It’s changed a little with the recession, but for a long time, houses were getting bigger and bigger and bigger as our families were getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and a lot of families, if they could afford to do so, gave their kids their own rooms. So you have this whole generation of kids growing up who are used to having their own space.
More people are staying single or, even of those who do get married, getting married later and later and later. For the U.S., just about every new Census report that comes out shows that the age at which people first marry is going up. So you have more young adults who are used to living on their own, having their own space. You get this group of people liking having control over their space. Then you get this phenomenon where if you get in a committed or even a married relationship, you might still want to have your own place.
What feeds into that, of course, is very much the decline of marriage. There are fewer people getting married, and when they’re getting married, they’re doing it at later ages.
And what are some of the main reasons for the decline of marriage?
There is a whole roster of sociological changes that have led into that, including, especially for women, that marriage just isn’t that necessary anymore. So lots of women—not all of them—support themselves and maybe even kids. They’re not tethered to a husband for economic life support. Scientific advances mean that women can have children without having a husband—they can have children without having sex if they want, or they can have sex without having children.
The huge parts of life that used to be tied in with marriage have all come undone and are separate pieces now. You can support yourself either when you’re married or when you’re not. You can support kids when you’re married or when you’re not. You can have kids, married or not. You can have sex, married or not—without stigma or shame. Women especially, regardless of whether they eventually want to marry or not, aren’t doing the old thing of just marking time until they meet “the one.” They’re going out and buying houses for themselves. Single women especially are a growing part of the home sales market.
How are attitudes to long-term partnerships changing generally?
There’s just so much less stigma about divorce, so that’s part of it. It’s become pretty routine for people to have one long-term relationship after another. And, on the edges, there are also people who are “poly” and have several [relationships] at once.
You’ve spoken about women, but what’s happening with men? There’s that stereotype or that archetype of the perennial bachelor, right?
There has been some single-male bashing going on, which really bothers me. But, traditionally, I think the reason most of the writing and the angst on singles has focused on women is because in the past, they were so much more economically dependent on marriage than men were. Although there is still tons of what I call “matrimania” in the culture. You know, the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling, the Bachelor and Bachelorette shows.
In the 1950s, when the age at which people married was lowest and the greatest number of people were married and got married and stayed married, you didn’t need books with titles like The Case for Marriage. Nobody needed to read about the case for marriage; it seemed obvious. It’s only now that you need this hype because it isn’t obvious anymore.
It seems that Millennials’ attitudes toward marriage differ significantly from that of prior generations. It almost seems to be gaining a kind of retro appeal.
Even if marriage does make a bit of a comeback, it’s never going to have that dominant place it used to have in the sense that just about everybody does it and just about everybody wants to. It’s going to have to share the limelight with lots of other ways of living. That’s what we’re seeing now: the emergence of different ways of living. Those are going to gain legitimacy, even if they’re only small trends like “living apart together.” As more and more people do it, they know someone who’s doing it, and it becomes not such a weird thing anymore.
As our options proliferate and people pursue these different types of ways of living, marriage will never, ever go back to being the thing that everyone assumes they’re going to do.
An opposite trend to solo living that we’re seeing, especially in the U.S., is more people living under the same roof. Why do you think that is?
That has actually changed over the years. There was a time when if you did that, you were either family or you were just roommates. Now, people are doing it and they’re thinking of it in the long term. They think of themselves not as roommates but as housemates—they look to each other as people that you’re really going to settle in and live with. You’re not just cutting your costs by living under the same roof, but you’re actually having lives that intersect. Maybe you have dinner together occasionally, go and do some things together, or have house meetings sometimes that aren’t just about paying the rent.
You see it at all ages, but an interesting age group is [Boomers], where people are getting older and thinking, “I don’t want to get stuck in a nursing home, and how can I have other people in my life?”
There’s also going back to living with extended family members. A little bit of that is the recession. Young adults who can’t afford to have their own place, they go back to their parents’ place and they never leave, for economic reasons. There are also those who are doing it because they actually like their parents. The younger adults and their parents are more similar in their attitudes and perspectives and choices than they used to be a few generations ago.
Can you describe some other models for family structures?
Another way that people are living is when they have places of their own, but they deliberately live within a community. The most formal model of that is called “co-housing.” In co-housing, people come together and they find a piece of land—or they retrofit something that’s existing—because they actually want to be a community. They want to have a neighborhood that’s neighborly. So they each have their houses or their apartments, and they’re usually built around a common space like a stretch of green or a courtyard. Cars are on the periphery, so it’s a safe neighborhood that you can walk in and socialize in.
Co-housing communities have what’s called a “common house,” a house in addition to everybody’s separate houses that they share. They typically come together a couple of times a week to have meals, and the common house sometimes has other rooms as well. They might have, you know, an art room or a meeting room, or it just depends on what the community’s interests are. These communities are usually self-governing; they’re very non-hierarchical.
There are at least 120 in the United States. It started in Denmark and Sweden, so there are more there. The Netherlands have a lot. I think there are a few in Great Britain, too.
Do these kinds of communities point to a broader shift in the way family is formed?
One of the big changes [is that] friendship is getting better recognition. People call it “families we create,” rather than blood families. “Families we choose,” that’s another way that people talk about this. You value other people in addition to your family members. Another big part of this is that families are getting smaller, so you may not have any siblings, or you might have only one sibling and your sibling might live across the country or in another country. These other kinds of ties—like friendships or people who live next door—those are growing in significance in part because we just don’t have family like we used to with the decreasing number of kids per family.
On the other end of things, because lifespans are still increasing, a lot of motivation for the changes and the innovations in living style are coming from people who are older and looking into the future and thinking, “I am not going to get stuck in some institution in my later life.” They’re doing things like finding places in the same neighborhood with their longtime friends or family members, or they’re getting senior co-housing.
There is this wonderful innovation for older people called the Village Concept. It was created to help older people who really want to stay in their homes but need a lot of help to get the various needs and services they might need. You pay a certain amount per month and then you call one number or you go to one website, saying, “I need a ride to the grocery store,” or “My computer crashed,” or “I need help with these forms,” or “I need help to get organized.” You can get somebody to come and help you and do it as part of your membership.
How has technology changed the way people create their families?
Technology has really added a lot of good stuff. I know it’s fashionable today to trash technology in the way it makes us look down at our phones instead of across the table to the person who’s actually sitting across from us. But there are data showing that people who use technology more are actually more connected to other people. They use it to stay in touch in between getting together, but they don’t typically use it as a substitute. [Technology] allows us to really close those distances.
Technology probably has something to do with the reason that young adults like their parents more than they used to.
And what part does technology play in the rise of solo living?
When you’re home alone, you’re not really so alone if you can get in front of your computer or whip out your smartphone and be connected to any number of people you like or care about or just find interesting, at a moment’s notice. That’s a whole different way of being home alone than if you never had any of that technology.
How do the consumption or behavioral habits of people who live alone differ from other consumer cohorts?
They’re keeping up separate households, so that is different. They have more control over their own budgets and spending. What marketers need to do is get out of this mindset of marketing to couples even when the people they’re addressing really are couples, because they might have their own budget and their own likes and their own interests. And when [couples] are living apart together, they’re still going to consume in some ways like a single person living alone.
So overall, what does the rise of solo living mean for marketers?
The main thing to keep in mind is that for many people, this is something they want. It’s a positive thing. What should go totally out the window are all these ads making fun of people living alone and making fun of single people, making it seem like something you can joke about or make fun of. An example of a good one was this wonderful ad that showed this woman alone in her place, and you get the sense that finally she has it to herself, and she’s just savoring. It really conveyed the idea that it’s so wonderful to have your place to yourself. That’s a great image.
Another thing is to reward people for their loyalty and not for coming to your company as a couple or as a family. For example, the bad version of Amazon is Amazon Prime, where for me to get a membership I have to pay the full amount, whereas if I were living with a spouse and grown kids, we could split it three, four, five ways, whatever.
The good part is that I’m an Amazon Associate. That means that every time somebody clicks my link and buys something on Amazon, I get a tiny bit of money. As the number of people who click that link grows, the percentage of money I get increases. That’s the right model, because it rewards me for my loyalty to Amazon and the business I’m bringing to Amazon. That is a much more fair model, a model that respects that we’re all individuals and doesn’t say, “Come to us as a family and you pay less per person, or come to us as a couple and you pay less per person.”
What marketers need to realize is that we’re not all couples and we’re not all traditional families anymore. They need to get off the habit of just assuming people come in romantic pairs or that all adults have kids.