By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
More people now live alone than ever before, with more than a third of all households expected to be 'solo' by 2021. So what does it mean for the nation?
Surely living on your own isn't that big a deal? Not so, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). It is one of the most significant changes to take place in British society in decades, with implications for every person, the environment, the economy - even feminism.
According to the leading think tank more people now live alone than ever before and by 2021, more than 35% of all households are expected to consist of just one person - something which would have big consequences.
But instead of an army of lonely, Chardonnay-supping Bridget Joneses across the nation, it is men under 65 who are pushing up the statistics. Almost double the number of young men live alone than women - 15% of men aged 25-44 compared to 8% of women.
And while men find it much harder living alone, women find it empowering and are now starting to view it as a rite of passage, according to the findings of the IPPR's Unilever Family Report 2005.
"Women enter into it with more gusto, they see it as mark of independence and means of expanding their social network," says the report's author Melissa Lewis.
"A lot more men find it lonely. It is the daily contact that they miss most, particularly not having someone to talk to at the end of a bad day at work."
Men are used to being looked after which might help explain why they struggle on their own, according to psychologist and life coach, Gladeana McMahon.
"It is still women who do the bulk of the daily tasks and organise the social diary, men miss that when it is taken away from them. Women find it liberating just to be looking after themselves and no one else."
It's an argument the report appears to support. It found women were more likely than men to see friends and family frequently as a consequence of living alone. And the men who most enjoyed their solo residence were likely to have girlfriends and have "the best of both worlds".
Ms Lewis says another possible reason for the difference between the sexes is that divorced men are less likely to live with their children and focusing purely on people who live alone misses women living with children after a relationship breakdown.
But the implications of the trend go far beyond a person's individual happiness. It is not all loft apartments and lattes - the increase in single-person households is contributing to a rise in inequality, says the IPPR.
"The stereotype of the white, middle class person living in a loft apartment is not the reality," says Ms Lewis.
Not such a stereotype after all
Solo living is disproportionately expensive and this has more of an impact on poorer people living alone.
At one end of the spectrum you have richer people who can cushion themselves from the asset shocks of living alone and are more likely to feel the extra expense is worth it.
At the other end people are severely hit financially. Those in single person households are much more likely to be unemployed than the general population, according to the report.
It also has serious implications for the environment, particularly energy use. The domestic sector makes use of almost a third of the UK's energy so more solo households will lead to greater energy use.
Housing demand will also rise faster than population growth figures suggest, according to the IPPR.
"At the moment the rise in people living alone seems to have made no impact on the government and other policy makers," says environmental journalist Guy Shaw.
"Sure, the food industry has caught on and can't produce individual ready meals quick enough. But this trend has serious implications for the environment, just the packaging from all those meals is frightening.
Supermarkets are cashing in on solo living
"At a time when the government is supposed to be lowering carbon emissions, the energy implications could be very damaging."
The IPPR agreed and is calling for the rise in solo living needs to be incorporated into environmental and social planning.
"The impact of solo living is still very much an unknown but it poses many questions for policy makers. The government and industry need to get thinking," says Ms Lewis.
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