Splits and Singles: Living Alone in Middle Age 

Published on 08 August, 2019 | Andrew Newbury

The British household has undergone tremendous change in recent decades.

Since the introduction of current divorce law in the early 1970s, we’ve seen a dramatic increase (and, then, over the last 25 years, an equally considerable decline) in the number of marriages coming to a legal conclusion.

We’ve seen civil partnerships for same-sex couples precede full marriage and, lest it be forgotten, an enormous rise in the number of couples choosing to live together without marrying at all.

The latest figures on UK home life from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2018) reinforce how cohabitation remains the fastest growing family type.

Even though married and civil partner couples comprise two-thirds of all families, the number of cohabiting couples in this country stands at 3.4 million – up almost 26 per cent in the course of the last 10 years.

Nevertheless, the ONS’ reports often contain other patterns which illuminate on a nationwide basis the kind of developments which myself and my colleagues at Hall Brown are seeing on a more individual level.

Take the growth in the number of men and women choosing to live alone, which has exceeded the eight million mark for the first time.

Given how much more digitally connected we all are now and how, for instance, the opportunities – technological and otherwise – to meet potential partners are greater than in previous generations, it might come as a surprise that a large proportion of the population chooses to live on their own.

Looking closely at the ONS’ data, we can not only track the increase in people living alone but see possible factors for why that’s the case.

Even though there are more of both sexes living on their own, the last two decades worth of available statistics reveal that the rise is far more pronounced among men than women.

In particular, there’s been something of a change in terms of which age groups are driving the process.

Back in 1998, men aged between 25 and 44 accounted for the largest single group – almost 40 per cent – of all men living alone.

Fast forward to 2018 and we find that they’ve been overtaken by men aged between 45 and 64. In fact, the number of males in that age group living on their own has risen by a staggering 76 per cent during the last 20 years.

There’s a less conspicuous but, I would argue, a no less meaningful increase (39 per cent) in the same age group for women. It also makes up the largest single group of females living alone.

I believe that’s interesting because it’s the age group among which divorce is also highest, according to other ONS’ data (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2017).

As I’ve been telling Gabriella Swerling, the Daily Telegraph’s Social Affairs Correspondent, the correlation may be more than mere coincidence.

It may well be that some of those now living alone have been through a divorce – with all of the financial implications which it throws up – and simply don’t want to run the risk of a repeat (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/08/07/silver-splitters-fuel-record-numbers-older-people-living-alone/).

Many of those in the 45-64 age group will also be planning for retirement – if, of course, they’ve not already ended their careers. If they’ve concluded settlements after a previous divorce, they may have had to divide their pensions and don’t want to further reduce the assets which they’ll need for the rest of their lives.

That’s a real concern too when you consider how the ONS has pointed out that life expectancy for both men and women is increasing (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandlifeexpectancies/articles/whatismylifeexpectancyandhowmightitchange/2017-12-01).

Now, it’s true that there are ways of minimising the impact which, say, a remarriage would have on pre-marital assets. We are certainly handling more pre-nuptial agreements across all age groups, including that which makes up the largest single group of men and women living alone.

Even so, there are other people who decide that, having been through one marriage collapse, any additional risk to their finances is too great.

The phrase “once bitten, twice shy” might seem rather glib on the face of it but, as we and the ONS are observing, it aptly describes the sentiments felt in a growing number of British households.

Share this post: