If someone from 1940 suddenly appeared among us, they’d be astounded by many things. Some are obvious: Segregation is gone. Women are routinely in the workforce. We all walk around with the knowledge of the universe in our pockets, yet use it to share conspiracy theories and cat videos.
Here’s something that might not be so obvious, though: That 1940s visitor would be shocked by how many of us live alone.
In 1940, one-person households were something of an oddity — just 7.7% of the nation’s households were people living alone. Today that figure is 27.6%, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is gradually releasing more detailed figures from the 2020 headcount.
That growth hasn’t been sudden — the big jump was actually during the 1970s, which coincides with a sharp rise in divorce rates — but the upward trend still continues, even though divorce rates have been going down since 1980 (although they’ve ticked up in the past few years).
Overall, Virginia is pretty typical: 27% of the households in the state are one-person households, so just a fraction under the national average. More telling is this: Virginia has 16 localities (out of 133) where people living alone is the most common household. They come in two types: distinctly younger localities where a lot of those singles are surely young adults, and distinctly older localities where a lot of these singles are, indeed, over 65 and therefore probably widows or widowers.
To that extent, this data mirrors what the Census Bureau recently released on households with married couples. That data — which I wrote about in a previous column — showed that the percentages of married-couple households were highest in suburban and exurban areas and lowest in places with either especially young populations or older ones. By contrast, the percentages of living-alone households are lowest in those highly married places and highest in the lowest-married ones.
Some of that is just math: As one percentage goes up, another must go down. Some of it is simply practical: The most-married localities in the state are more affluent, and also more expensive, places to live. That likely makes it difficult for someone dependent on a single income to live there.
Let’s take a closer look at those 16 places where one-person households outnumber married-couple households.
The capital of those living-alone households is Arlington, where 42% of the households are one-person households and 36% are married-couple households. Arlington’s median age is just 34.0, well below the state median of 38.7 or the U.S. median of 38.6 — it’s now edged up to 38.9 but I’m using 2020 data to keep everything consistent — so it’s reasonable to conclude that many of these people living alone are young adults. Indeed, Arlington and Alexandria hve the state’s next-to-lowest rate of households led by people over 65 living alone (only Manassas and Manassas Park is lower). In all, 81% of Arlington’s living-alone households are under 65 (and probably a lot younger than that, we just don’t have the data). That unusual but not that unusual: Statewide, 60% of the living-alone population is under age 65.
Just behind Arlington are three localities that all have the same share of living-alone households but three different stories for how they got there. Those three are Alexandria, Lexington and Petersburg.
In each city, 41% of their households are one-person households — that’s vs. 36% of the households being married-couple households in Alexandria and Lexington, while in Petersburg a state-low of 21% of the households involve married couples. That’s right: Petersburg has almost twice as many one-person households as it does married-couple households.
Alexandria and Lexington are both like Arlington — distinctly young cities. Alexandria’s median age is 36.5, Lexington’s a state low of 22.7. Lexington, though, isn’t just a college town, it’s a two-college town. Alexandria is more like Arlington — a magnet for young adults in the D.C. metro area.
Petersburg is just the opposite. It’s an older city, with a median age of 39.6, although that’s by no means the oldest locality in the state. A high percentage of its living-alone households are over 65. In Arlington, just 19% of the one-person households are over 65. In Petersburg, 34% of the one-person households are.
The other localities where one-person households are the most common household can fit into those three categories:
- Cities with young median ages (Richmond, Norfolk)
- Cities with young median ages because they’re college towns (Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Radford, Williamsburg)
- Cities with older median ages (Danville, Emporia, Hopewell, Martinsville, Norton, Roanoke)
And then there are two communities — Bristol and Covington, both cities with older median ages — where the share of one-person households is the same as the share of married-couple households.
Yet more data: Statewide, 10% of Virginia’s households are people over 65 living alone. In other words, Virginia now has a bigger share of seniors living alone than we had total population living alone in 1940. Of course, life spans were shorter then and there were more multi-generational households.
Some localities, though, have much higher percentages of households led by people over 65 living alone. In Northumberland County, a popular retirement county by the Chesapeake Bay, 20% of the households are people over 65 living by themselves. In fact, nearly six of every 10 one-person households there are people over 65.
Other communities with high rates of one-person households over 65 are Bristol, Covington and Northampton — 18% of the households there are people over 65 living alone.
They’re followed by Emporia, Galax and Staunton, where 17% of the households are people over 65 living by themselves.
There are lots of social implications to both an aging population and a large aging population living alone — or, indeed, a younger population living alone. The first two phenomena inspire the need for greater services for seniors. The latter leads to lower birth rates — people are marrying later and having fewer children. That, in turn, forecasts a smaller workforce in the decades ahead — and fewer taxpayers to pay for any of those senior services that might be provided by the government, such as Medicare and Social Security.
This is a complicated mix of demographic trends, and it’s further complicated by politics. Single people tend to vote Democratic, married couples are more split. That’s not the only reason Arlington, Alexandria, Lexington and Petersburg are all Democratic strongholds, but it factors in somewhere.
Some have called these rising numbers of one-person households “an epidemic of loneliness.” That’s a subjective appraisal; ultimately, it might depend on where someone falls on the Meyers-Briggs personality test — some people may like to live alone.
What we can say more objectively is that while the rates of one-person households are high by American standards, they are not necessarily high by global standards. In six countries, the share of living-alone households is more than 40% — topping out at 45.8% in Norway. Five of those six countries have higher rates than any locality in Virginia; only Estonia at 40.3% comes in lower than Arlington, Alexandria, Lexington and Petersburg. The other countries in that 40%-plus category: Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Germany. You’ll notice that all of those are in Europe and all have very different social service systems than we have. For instance, five of those six countries have universal health care, and Estonia has what’s deemed by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies as “almost” universal health care.
As our rates of people living alone creep up — driven by an aging population — we’re headed toward those European percentages of people living alone but without a European social service safety net. Perhaps we ought to talk more about how this is going to work?