Numbers of single adults continue to rise

17th September 2019

The latest figures about marital status in England and Wales were published in September.  The headlines were about how fewer numbers were choosing to get married over the last 10 years (less than one quarter of whom now have a religious ceremony). At Single Friendly Church, we are primarily concerned about those who are unpartnered, being neither married nor cohabiting (a couple living as married).

The numbers of single people are increasing

Estimates by Office for National Statistics put the percentage of the unpartnered at 39% of society.  That is 19 million people in England and Wales not living as a partnered couple.

Over 8 million of these live in their homes alone (15% of the adult population).  This is a major milestone —  that so many are choosing or ending up living alone. The other 11 million are living with friends/housemates, or with other family members (including parents and/or children). 

The 8 million living alone is particularly driven by rises among 45-64 year old women and  65-74 year old men. The reasons offered for these increases in living alone are:

  • increasing numbers of people in society in the age group 45-64 years old (therefore more likely to afford living alone)
  • more divorced or single never married
  • men are living better and so longer.

Among those living with family members are the 1 in 4  20-34 year olds who live with their parents. Young men have in the last 20 years been more likely to live with their parents. 31% of men in this age group, but only 20% women. Possible explanations include that women tend to partner up (marry or cohabit) at younger ages and that they also tend to move to get educational qualifications.

As the official reports say, the number of single people are rising in every age group except the over 75s where marriedness is increasing.

Cohabiting couples are the fastest rising family type

Although the headline figures talk about the reducing numbers choosing marriage, this is compensated by the numbers choosing to cohabit.  Only 48% are married and living together as a couple or with family — less than half.  10% are cohabiting having never been married and 3% previously married (divorced or widowed).

Living with a partner before marriage has been the majority practice since mid 1990s, now 4 in 5 do so.  It is as normal now to cohabit before marriage as it was rare in the 1960s. The average cohabitation being 5 years and 4 years before marriage.  3 in 10 children are born during cohabitation, which leads to a dramatic increase in number of cohabiting families with dependent children over the last ten years.

However the number of lone parent families still outnumber those.  Overall, the most common families remain those married (including civil partnership) families at 64%, with lone parent families 21% and cohabiting couple families 15%. This means that 1 in 5 of all families with dependent children are single parent families - close to 3 million.

Some implications for our churches

Social patterns have changed

The pre-war social patterns have changed.  There can no longer be an assumption of childhood - young adult - marriage - parenting - widowhood. There are single people of all ages, with living alone increasing to 8 million and 3 million single parents with dependent children.  Divorce is on the increase, so there are many more single people at all ages up to 70 for that reason.

People are leaving church during the marrying years

The later formation of partnership, whether marriage or cohabiting, means far more single young adults. By the age of 40 years old, partnerships (marriage or cohabiting) catch up to the high levels of the 1960s.  But 25-40 is exactly the age period that many leave the church and are critical about the church not knowing what to do with them.

This makes it harder for those who remain as practising Christians who attend church to find partners, there are simply fewer of them. We learned in a recent survey that the number one request is opportunities to meet other single Christians of the right age for marriage. And preaching against the patterns of society (against premarital cohabitation), should the church choose to do that, needs to be supported with much good teaching and practical aid.

Supporting single parents practically

Later, there is a growth in numbers of single parents. They say that the church is not very active in helping them attend bible studies or evening events, or even to get to church.  In particular they want help should a child or themselves fall ill, not least because they often lose earning those days.  There is much more that can be done in support of their Christian practice and also for practical living.

Finding ways for the live-alones to meet and do things together

Then there is a big growth in living alone later in life, some never married, others following divorce or widowhood. Is the church ready to embrace single people?  The older single Christians are, the less good place the church is for them they told us in a 3,000 person survey. Something needs to happen to enable more community around the church for those who live alone. This isn’t about coffee mornings for the lonely, although many are, but about exploring how to live more together now that they are alone.

David Pullinger, 17 September 2019