Over the past seven decades, America has gone through a historic transformation in household living arrangements with a record proportion of adults, now one in seven, living alone, amounting to more than one-quarter of all U.S. households.
The transformation in living alone has resulted in far-reaching social, economic and political consequences that stretch across America’s cities and states. Those consequences include housing construction, homeownership, household income, consumption patterns, meal products, savings, health care, leisure activities, safety, elder assistance and voting behavior.
Throughout the 19th century and up to the mid 20th century, no more than several percent of American adults lived alone. In 1850, for example, 74,000 adults lived alone, representing less than 1 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 years and older. By 1950, the proportion living alone increased to 4 percent of the adult population, about 4 million Americans.
However, since 1950, the proportion of adults living alone in the U.S. has tripled to about 15 percent. Approximately 36 million men and women now live alone, representing a record high of 28 percent of all U.S. households.
Among the factors contributing to the rise of living alone are migration from rural areas to cities, increased economic opportunities, the rise of wage labor and the desire for personal independence. In addition, other important factors giving rise to one-person households are women’s labor force participation, delayed marriage, increased divorce, the rise of single-parent households, the decline in stigma of living alone, childbearing at older ages, and increase of older adults living alone.
Near the start of the 20th century close to two-thirds of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. By the middle of the century the situation had reversed itself with two-thirds of the population living in cities and by the century’s close, the country’s proportion of urban increased to about 80 percent.
Median ages at first marriage have also increased markedly over the recent past. For example, whereas the median ages at first marriage in 1950 were 20 years for women and 22 years for men, today those ages are 28 years for women and 30 years for men.
The proportion of Americans living alone varies considerably by age and sex. While about 5 percent of adults below age 25 years live alone, the proportion doubles to about 12 percent for ages 25 to 64 years, nearly doubles again to 22 percent for those aged 65 to 74 years and jumps to approximately 33 percent for those aged 75 years and older.
Before age 65, men are more likely to live alone than women. After age 65, however, that trend reverses. Approximately 80 percent of the elderly living alone in America are women.
At ages 75 and older, the proportion of women living alone is close to double that of men, 45 versus 23 percent. This reversal in living alone among elderly Americans is largely due to women’s higher life expectancies, younger ages at first marriage and lower likelihood to remarry.
The proportions who live alone also vary across U.S. states and cities. About 17 percent of adults live alone in some states, such as North Dakota, Vermont, Ohio and Maine, amounting to about one-third of all households. In contrast, in other states, such as Utah, Hawaii, California and Texas, the percentage is between 9 to 12 percent, approximately one-quarter of all households.
In addition, no less than nine large U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland, New Orleans, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., have approximately one-quarter of their adult residents living alone. Those one-person households account for nearly half of all households in those cities.
Globally, however, extended family households are the most common, accounting for close to 40 percent of all people, followed by two-parent family households with approximately one-third of the world’s population. For example, in India slightly more than half of the country’s population live in extended families and in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, Israel and Jordan, no less than 60 percent of the population live in two-parent family households.
In many parts of the world, the proportion of people living alone is relatively low. In China, about 5 percent of individuals occupy solo households and in India, the proportion is approximately 2 percent.
In contrast to developing countries, living alone has become increasingly prevalent in developed countries. For example, single-person households represent slightly more than half of all households in Sweden and account for more than 40 percent of households in Denmark, Finland, Germany and Lithuania.
Living alone has a number of pros and cons that vary by an individual’s circumstances, preferences and needs within a social, economic and cultural context. For example, living alone is typically more costly than sharing a dwelling, but it offers more privacy, freedom and independence.
Also, living alone makes it easier to choose a lifestyle without judgment, interference and oversight. Yet, it comes with risks of emotional loneliness and financial insecurity, especially for elderly persons.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when socializing was discouraged and people were confined to their homes, people living alone were more likely to experience more loneliness, depression and social isolation than others. However, living alone had the beneficial effect of reducing one’s chances of becoming infected by the coronavirus.
Another notable effect of the pandemic on U.S. households has been millions of young Americans returning to live with their parents. Among the strong forces pushing the “boomerang generation” to live with their parents are housing costs, economic downturns, more years of college, large student debt and delayed family formation.
America is in the midst of a transformation in household living arrangements with one in seven adults now living alone, amounting to more than one-quarter of all U.S. households. It’s time to fully recognize the historic transformation of America’s households and adapt to its far-reaching social, economic and political consequences.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."