This is the fourth in a series of essays based on data from the 2006 census, produced in cooperation with the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Since the 1960s we have experienced major changes in the way people live and the way in which they build their families and households. Adults are marrying and having children later than in the past, if they do these things at all; families have become less stable, smaller and more diverse. A great deal is now known about these changes but a parallel change, the steady rise in one person households, is barely understood.

In 2006 almost two million adults were living alone in Australia. This number, which represents 13 per cent of individuals aged 20 and older, is steadily rising; since 1971 lone person households have almost doubled from 14 per cent of all Australian households in 1971 to 27 per cent in 2006. By any measure, those who live alone represent a significant proportion of the population and the growth in this form of living invites us to ask what kinds of people are living alone and whether the increase in living alone is more marked among some sectors of the population than others. By examining the types of people who live alone, what are we able to conclude about this rise in living alone?

To begin to make sense of the accelarating phenomenon of living alone we must first develop a picture of the types of people who live alone. It is only by understanding who lives alone and the groups among whom living alone is growing that we can begin to understand what might lie behind this trend—a trend that is seen in all developed countries.

We will focus on a limited set of factors. First, we explore the age, gender and marital status profile of those who live alone. A traditional image of solo living is that of the elderly widow. But is this accurate? Are those that live alone mainly elderly? Is the growth in living alone due to the ageing of the population or is it driven by an increase in the number of young people living alone, by delaying marriage and childbearing? While widowhood is one reason why people will live alone, other changes to marriage patterns could also be responsible. Not only are young people delaying marriage, far more people are separating and divorcing and thus ‘at risk’ of living alone. Is it true that solo living is more common among women, as the image of the elderly widow would suggest? How often do men live alone? While relatively few elderly men live alone there are good reasons to expect that living alone will be more common among younger and middle aged men. Is the growth in living alone being driven by an increase in younger women living alone as they become economically more independent and where cultural changes are more supportive of younger women living an independent life?

The second set of factors we explore focus on aspects of social advantage and disadvantage. Here we ask whether living alone is more common among those who are relatively socially advantaged or among those who are more marginalised. One popular image of those who live alone is that solo living reflects loss. It is imagined to be the living arrangement of loners and those who cannot form friendships or form and keep families. But living alone, where living costs cannot be shared and economies of scale are not available, is also a relatively expensive way of living. So we might expect that living alone will be more common among the affluent and the successful who can afford this lifestyle. Rather than being a living arrangement of the loner who cannot manage to find others to live with, it might be the living arrangement chosen by those who are seeking independence and have the personal and financial resources to enable them to achieve this.

A better picture of the kinds of people who live alone and where the growth in living alone is taking place will provide insights into the factors that are behind this profound social change.

About the authors

David de Vaus FASSA, has recently joined the University of Queensland as professor of Sociology and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. David has contributed extensively to research in the fields of family diversity and change, family demography, life course transitions, ageing, retirement and social research methods. He is currently completing a 5 year ARC funded project on ‘Living Alone in Australia’. He has served on various editorial boards including those of Journal of Sociology, Journal of Family Studies, Journal of Social Issues and Sociology, and worked in senior positions at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Sue Richardson FASSA (President 2003-2006) is Principal Research Fellow in the National Institute of Labour Studies, which she first joined as Director in 2000. She also holds a part-time appointment as Commissioner with the Essential Services Commission of South Australia. Her prime research interests are in inequality, the wellbeing of children and the functioning of the labour market R09; particularly the ageing workforce, skill shortages, immigration, social inclusion and the links between work and health. She has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, Columbia University and the Australian National University. She is currently Chief Investigator on four ARC and/or NHMRC grants.