Rent has gone up everywhere in the past decade, so the number of people living alone should have declined over that time, right? Right. Except the exact opposite has happened. The number of people gleefully going to the bathroom with the door wide open and eating breakfast cereal while standing at the kitchen counter with no pants or underwear on has actually increased – steadily, and then sharply since 2010. Why?
Part of it is obvious: there are more one-bedroom housing units being built than other types of units. In a real estate boom, developers generally build more profitable, high-end properties first – a bracket that favors the single occupancy unit – before filling in the gaps with affordable housing. (God bless America…) So it stands to reason that if there are more one bedrooms being built, there would be more people living alone.
Digging a little deeper into the data, it turns out that the demographic who’ve seen the biggest increase in solitary living are men in their 50s and 60s. The vast majority of these men have gone through a recent divorce, and find themselves living alone for the first time since their youth. Is it possible that, in a year when it looks like the winning presidential ticket could very well have two women on it, older women are finding themselves newly empowered to leave behind stale marriages? (Short answer: yes.) My mother and her friends (anecdotal evidence alert!) seem to be following this pattern – my mother’s best friend recently dumped her husband after catching him trying to woo a woman 30 years his junior over Facebook, and even her friends who are still technically married go on several “women only” vacations a year, leaving their grumpy husbands back home to eat pre-made, labeled Tupperware meals while watching documentaries about the Korean War.
This trend might run even deeper. Since 2010 there have been simultaneous spikes not only in the percentage of people who live alone, but also in the national divorce rate, and in social media usage. These last two may not seem obviously related but definitely are; according to some experts, Facebook is now cited as the most common reason for couples to get divorced. (Understandable; if someone I was married to ever shared one of those statuses that say, “only true friends and people with love in their hearts will share this, everyone else will just keep scrolling,” I would have the divorce papers drawn up within the hour.) And if these last two are connected, then all three are; the reason more people live alone today than ever before is because of social media-related relationship implosion. It’s not even that controversial, if you think about it. The real rabbit hole is when you start trying to calculate how much of total rent increases are directly due to our dads forgetting to sign out after sending his long-lost high school sweetheart an animated GIF of a rose …
Of course, there are other factors in all this. At the same time as solitary living was increasing, we also saw a steady increase in people (especially young people) moving back home. It can’t be a coincidence that this widening gap between the independent and the dependent mirrors the increase in inequality over the past decade. We could be looking at a future where everybody either lives in a $3000-a-month loft, or in their parents’ basement. Over this same time frame, we’ve also seen the rise of the “quality of life” movement. Tiny houses represent prioritizing freedom over money; tangentially related is the person who still prioritizes money, but wants to extract more “quality of life” from that money. Hence more people, of all age groups, choosing to live alone even though it’s more and more expensive relative to wages.
The problem is that if all of these trends hold steady – and projections suggest that they’re accelerating – we’re in for an unpleasant convergence. With older Americans getting divorced at historical rates, debt-burdened young people confronting a completely inert job market, and rents climbing more and more each year, we’re looking at a future where everyone is forced by necessity to live with roommates. Not only that, those roommates will likely be your newly-single parents, whose basement you’d be living in, except they sold the house in a bitter divorce. I’m praying – literally praying – that global warming wipes us all out before I have to come home from the bar to find my dad drunk Tindering at the kitchen table.