There’s a term that’s increasingly doing the rounds these days: Singletons. Being a singleton is a status, just like being married, divorced, widowed is. The term is commonly applied for the group of people who like to live their lives by themselves, running their own establishments, cocking a snook at the old idea that being single is a pitiable state, which one existed in because there is no other choice. The cantankerous, spinster aunt, the middle- aged ladies with half a dozen cats, the eccentric gentlemen with his never-ending stories — these were the typical examples of singletons of yore. There was certainly some shame associated with living alone as an adult. Not anymore.
Singletons today are not just a miniscule number on the socio-cultural scene but a considerable percentage of people the world over. The new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by sociologist and author, Eric Klinenberg which is an interesting examination into the substantial upsurge in single households, has opened debate, worldwide on the felicity of living alone. The change here is that people are opting to live solo because of all the advantages they think the status gives them, rather than because they do not have the option to be married.
According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is increasing rapidly — from approximately 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 —an increase of around 80 per cent in 15 years. In the UK, 34 per cent of households have one person living in them and in the US it is 28 per cent.
In 1950, about three per cent of the population of Europe and the USA lived alone. Today in the UK, seven million adults live alone. It is estimated that by 2020, one-person households will make up 40 per cent of total households.
In America, in the same year (1950), just 22 per cent of American adults were single. Recent demographic studies say that today, more than 50 per cent of American adults are single, and 31 million, which means approximately one out of every seven adults, live by themselves. People who live alone make up 28 per cent of all US households, which makes them even more common than the nuclear family.
These statistics seem to be implausibly high till you find out what the numbers in Stockholm prove. It appears that here singletons comprise an incredible 60 per cent of the adult population. The nations with the fastest growth in one-person households are none other than China, and Brazil and yes, India!
In India, it will take some time before they reach such enormous proportions as in the West. The social and cultural mores and pressures that steer single adults towards marriages and partnerships are still very strong here. Yet, globalisation and modernity brings about a change, and many people are opting to go solo, so these don’t seem to be passing trends, but seem to be a demographic shift born out of choices exercised.
Singleton role models
It is not as if the most powerful and popular people in the country are married. Leave aside the Bollywood stars, who prefer to stay single for obvious reasons, the elite political singles club is led by none other than the suave Rahul Gandhi, who recently declared that he would prefer to stay single. “If I get married and have children, I will be status-quoist and will like my children to take my place,” said he.
In addition to Rahul Gandhi, are politicians like Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik of Orissa, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Modi of Gujarat, Sheila Dikshit of Delhi and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal. Together, they rule a substantial part of the Indian population, surprising in a nation so mired in “family and relations.”
“I told my dad when he was pressing me to get married: If Rahul Gandhi can be single, so can I. I don’t really need to tie myself up in a legal relationship. I think Rahul made the right choice,” expresses Major Akhil Singh, an Army officer.
“The fauj encourages you to get married, but there really are no issues if you opt not to. I have nothing against a wife but I don’t want to worry about accommodation and peace stations and all that, which I’d have to with a wife and family. I’m free, having fun and travelling. That’s the life I want.”
I can afford it!
“Marriage is like keeping a dog, once you have it, you become its slave,” says Ritu Singla, an investment banker in Kolkata, who lives by herself in a smart studio apartment. “The life I live is the choice that I made. Not that I’m opposed to getting into a relationship if Mr Right comes along. But to give up my freedom and my lifestyle will be very difficult. I’m working hard, earning good money and I’m willing to spend it on the life that I choose to live.”
The growing independence and the confidence of women, specially, are spiking the growth of electing to go solo. People can afford to live alone, without economic support of families and partners. The increased stake-holding that women have in the economy, enables them to make this choice more easily. Parents in urban nuclear families too are aware of the increased importance of empowering their girls to earn and fend for themselves. Not blind to the transience of relationships, they encourage their girls to work hard and earn as well and they can. Thus enabled, the girls can make their status choices as well.
Economics of being single
Going the single way is not just a marital choice but it impacts economy of a country. The economy and the state have now recognised the existence of the state of being single and whereas at one time, single women were looked upon suspiciously and could not find a place to rent, today, special housing areas are being created for them. Builders are seriously looking to make single women complexes where women will feel safe to live and comfortable to spend their money on buying living spaces. Banks offer loans to working women at a percentage less than to men and travel companies are creating holiday packages especially for women. The pressure to “double up” is, in the Indian society, more on women than on men, so this type of social and economic acknowledgement is certainly an endorsement of the acceptance the increasing prosperity of the singleton.
“I, with my gang of girls, go out of the country for a trip once a year for sure. There are special packages that are being offered by every website worth its salt for all-women travel groups. We have been to Singapore, to see the Pyramids in Egypt, to China and this year we are going to the Bahamas”, says Radha Aggarwal, who works as a lecturer in a college. “When I was married, all I did was visit my in-laws in Saharanpur.”
Left on the shelf? Nah!
In fact, singletons feel that there really is no “best before” date to them. Conventional wisdom stated that women beyond a certain age were “old maids” who would be at the mercy of the family. The statistics have changed. People who have divorced, have lost their spouses or simply people who are happy living alone, make that choice. They do not wish to either be a burden or be burdened by families, but prefer a life of independence. Incidentally, singletons might live alone, but their social networks are enormous.
“Get married? No, thanks!” exclaims Shailendra Arora, who runs a catering business. “I’m having too much fun solo. I belong to a Harley Davidson Club and go on biking trips with my friends, I work hard and party harder and visit my parents from time to time. I admit that I do have relationships from time to time, but I’m really not interested in hitching up. Not yet- maybe never!”
Older and bolder
There was a time, not so long ago when the older generation, on losing a spouse, would move in with members of their families, their children or their married siblings. Not any longer. Older people now say that they would rather run their own establishments, even if that is more expensive than moving in with someone because it helps in maintaining their sense of dignity and self-worth. Ninety-year-old Krishna Khanna, widowed early, has been living in Pondicherry and working in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since 1982. She opted for the status of a singleton 38 years ago. “Before that I lived with my family. All through these years that I’ve lived in Pondicherry my family has urged me to come and live with them. My daughters, my granddaughters and now even my great-grandsons want me to move in with them. But I’ve been happy here and lived life on my own terms. I have my own friends and my own routines. Even today I work as much as I am able to. I never wanted to be dependent on anyone. If my family wants to see me, they must visit me, and they do! A life of self-respect is a life well lived,” she smiles sweetly.
Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out says the term “single at heart” would describe her. “Single is who I really am, it really suits me. I’m not against coupling. I’m single because it’s the kind of life that’s most meaningful and productive for me.”
Only not lonely
Contrary to perception, singletons are not holed up in their over decorated homes with their cats. Living alone should not be confused with being alone. One is a matter of status, and the other a matter of state of mind. In fact, most people who live alone are more likely to be involved in social and civic activities. They go to restaurants more, get involved in social and philanthropic activities, join yoga, dance, music and gym classes and are out there to be counted. In addition, thanks to television, and home entertainment via satellite and the internet, the fear of getting bored if one is alone, has been eliminated.
“I actually have a pretty full social calendar,” says Neha Kapoor who works in an IT firm in Chandigarh and lives in a small rented apartment, which is done up in steel and chrome, with retro prints on the wall. “Monday to Friday, I’m at work. In the evenings I go to the gym. On Wednesdays, I meet up with my friends in to get a drink, most places have ‘Ladies nights’ on Wednesdays for women. On Friday evenings, I catch a movie or am invited out. On Saturdays, I volunteer at a Children’s NGO. Sunday is rest day! It’s a busy life and a happy one.”
Of course, there is some loneliness and the wish to have a partner. Most singletons, specially the younger ones, are open to exploring relationships if they happen.
The last word
Being a singleton is not a life objective for most people, nor is it necessary that being solo is a decision that will abide for life. However, the quest for freedom and space and the ability to make one’s own decision do colour this verdict.
The singleton is, until now, an urban phenomenon. Accepted in the West, it is yet an alien concept in Indian society, which prefers to marry all its youngsters off. Still, education, empowerment and an exposure to lifestyles that seem more desirable have opened the option to people, youngsters as well as the older section, who take the decision of living singly. You cannot overlook the section of individuals who contribute to the economy, culture and community in distinct and productive ways.
(Some names have been changed on request)