Singleness around the world

The growth of singleness and single living is one of the biggest societal changes over the last few decades. In some countries, such as Japan and Singapore, it is a major cause of concern why young people just seem happier to be on their own.

Compare that with the UK where being single barely raises eyebrows, except where it might have an impact on bed use in hospitals. So, what’s the difference?

To find the answers, during 2016 our intern Louis Elton looked at the national statistics of five countries  – the UK, Sweden, France, Japan and Singapore – and what commentators had written about them.  Whether or not singleness is perceived as a problem depends on the level of population renewal.  Where numbers are stable or growing, policy-makers are not discussing singleness.  Where the population numbers are declining they are very worried.

Without population renewal, there will not (within the model of a democratic capitalist economy) be the wealth to sustain an ageing population with far fewer workers.  GDP will diminish as will the overall assets of the nation. Decline is, they claim, inevitable.  Those are the outcomes they see, but what are the causes?  If countries have similar rates of singleness among adults of 40-50%, then what are the reasons for stable population growth in some countries but not in others?

The differences appear to come down to two factors:

  • The acceptability or otherwise of having a child outside marriage
  • The level of immigration

Both Japan and Singapore have social taboos on children being born outside of wedlock. There is a strong conservatism about family life and ‘the ways things should be’. They also have large barriers to immigration. 

 This can be compared to the UK, where there is a very liberal attitude about marital status and child-bearing.  Cohabiting couples and single parents are reasonably common.  A large percentage of children are born to parents who are not married. And 1 in 4 were born to mothers who came from outside the UK. The combination of a liberal attitude and high levels of immigration renew the population and maintain the economic and social activity within society. Therefore singleness is not considered a problem in the UK.

All the data about these five nations is presented in the report along with much fine detail.  The overall result though is compelling.   

Commentary about the research:

From a Christian perspective, there are lessons here. The Church is like Japan and Singapore.  There is a strong conservatism about family life and also a low level of immigration (evangelism leading to new members). In a way, the church is in population decline just like those nations.

And that is what we see in the numbers.  It is a ageing church where fewer young people attend.  It is difficult to see how introducing a more liberal attitude to child-bearing would be appropriate for Christianity to promote, although it could certainly do more to welcome those from all types of marital status.  Like society, church members are single more often than in the past and child-bearing is reduced.  One reason is that single people are choosing to leave the church, especially around 25 years of age. The second reason is that there are so much fewer single men than women. We need to address both.  Why do single people leave and why so few educated professional men choose to attend church? Without larger numbers of Christian single people attending church, there will not be Christian marriages that may result in children being brought up in the church. The growth then has to come from elsewhere.

Immigration is the equivalent to making ‘disciples of all nations’ - evangelism.  We need to ask ourselves about the contact points with immigrant mothers and their children. What would be a steady source of new members who are not children of existing members?

These are large questions and ones that we had not intended when we first began looking at the data.  Nevertheless the need is urgent - more single adult Christians and more new members from perhaps non-traditional backgrounds