The Single Files: Learning to live with ourselves
Being single isn't just about having a partner or not. Increasing numbers of Irish people now live by themselves, so why do we keep building three-bed semi-Ds?
The number of people living alone has increased by 43 per cent in the past 10 years. Lone occupiers now represent almost a quarter of all Irish households. But finding a suitable home is becoming increasingly difficult for single people, thanks largely to the botched handling of Ireland’s building boom.
The trend towards single living has long been signposted. Family sizes have been falling over the past 30 years, while the number of people living alone has risen steadily. What hasn’t changed, though, is Ireland’s obsession with building three-bedroom semi-Ds, along with characterless apartment blocks with no ancillary facilities.
In 2007, long after the proverbial horse had bolted (with a cowboy developer whooping and hollering in the saddle), the Department of Environment introduced guidelines on creating “sustainable communities” modelled on Scandinavian urban-housing schemes. However, there is little chance of finding such a development today without jumping on a plane to Oslo.
“It is almost universal in Scandinavia that where you have one-bedroom apartments you have communal facilities where people can meet and feel part of a community,” says Dublin-based architect Sean Harrington. Each housing scheme would have something like a hobby room, or a communal lounge, “although in Sweden, invariably, it’s a sauna – where you can meet your neighbours even with your clothes off”.
There is an altogether different vibe to single living in Ireland, and arguably much of the western world. “For many people,” writes New Yorker critic Nathan Heller, living alone “has the taint of loserdom and brings to mind such characters as Ted Kaczynski [the Unabomber] and Shrek.”
Or, as Harrington puts it: “When we think of single-person households we think of sad, middle-aged men, living a life of sadness and alcoholism, but that’s very far from the truth. A lot of people want to live alone. It’s a lifestyle choice, and a lot more women want to live alone.”
This is borne out by the 2011 census, which showed more Irish women than men lived alone – 198,000 versus 194,000. Behind this, however, was an age imbalance. In the 35-49 age bracket, six out of 10 people living alone were men. This was more pronounced in rural areas, where 67.6 per cent of those living alone were men. After the age of 65, there was a sharp rise in the number of women living alone due to their higher relative life expectancy.
By European standards, we have a small proportion of singletons – and the gap hasn’t shifted much as single living is on the rise internationally. In 2011, people living alone accounted for 23.7 per cent of households. This compared to an EU average of 30.5, and a high of 46.4 in Denmark.
But where exactly are Irish singletons living? Because of a shortage of low-cost, one-bedroom apartments, many are house-sharing – a strange phenomenon to the average European. “In Germany, it’s really unusual to share an apartment. Around 50 per cent of all apartments in Berlin are one-person apartments,” says Harrington.
The Irish solution to this for some time was the creation of partitioned bedsits but these have effectively been banned since February 1st, when regulations came into force requiring all flats to meet basic habitation standards, including separate toilets and food-preparation areas. Although well-meaning, some believe the initiative has put further pressure on single renters.