In a land of mates we want to be alone
By Adele Horin

Sydney Morning Herald
13 September 2004

The number of people who live alone will increase at a "phenomenal" rate over the next 20 years, according to new projections.

The Bureau of Statistics predicts that 3.1 million people will live alone by 2026, up from 1.8 million in the 2001 census. And lone-person households will increase faster than any other.

In a paper to be presented at the Australian Population Association conference in Canberra this week, the bureau shows the proportion of people living alone is expected to jump to 13 per cent in 2026, up from 7 per cent in 1986, and 9 per cent in 2001.

As well, the traditional family of a couple with children will no longer be the most common family type. Within six years childless couples and empty nesters will predominate.

The dramatic changes in the population are a product of several trends, including declining fertility, increasing longevity, decreases in marriage, and higher education, the report says.

Women are projected to account for 57 per cent of those living alone and, at an average age of about 70, they will be considerably older than the average man on his own, who will be about 55.

David de Vaus, professor of sociology at La Trobe University, who is researching the trend, said living alone was not a "sad/bad" thing. The big growth in numbers was among younger people. Since 1971 the numbers aged 25-45 living alone had increased by 250 per cent.

"I expect among younger people it's a middle-class urban phenomenon," he said. "People have more money to afford the extra expense of living alone."

It meant for some that they could do what people had always wanted to do - have their independence. Among the elderly it could indicate better health and community support that enabled them to live alone instead of in a hostel or nursing home, as in the past.

However, some people, including many separated men, found living alone sad and difficult, and there was a need for more community care for the elderly.

Barbara Horner, director of the Centre for Research into Aged Care Services, at the Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia, said the assumption elderly people living alone were lonely and isolated was not backed by the evidence.

A pilot research project by the centre among 547 elderly people in Perth showed that while some felt lonely at times, they did not see it as a bad thing. "They didn't mind being lonely sometimes as long as they had some opportunities for social interaction and networks," Ms Horner said. "One person might see very few people in the course of the week and not be lonely, while another could have a lot of social interactions and say they were lonely."

The Bureau of Statistics paper, Households, family and living arrangements of the population of Australia: 1986 to 2026, says the number of those living in couple families without children is projected to rise to 6.2 million in 2026.

Couple families without children are projected to comprise 44 per cent of all family types by 2026, while couple families with children will comprise 37 per cent.

One-parent families will also increase from 15.7 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent of total families over the next 20 years.