The Solo Project: Exploring Practical Life Trends for Those Who Live Alone

solo living practical life

A few weeks ago, my Solo friend Sam called me up before a group trip to Paris. “Can I put you down as my emergency contact? Will you come get me if anything happens?”

It turned out that that routine question, which we confront a dozen times a year (I think it’s even on our passports), isn’t a straightforward proposition for those who live alone. If, God forbid, Sam got hurt or died in Paris, his parents were too old to travel and he has no adult children nor siblings. He didn’t have a friendly ex that would help out of nostalgia. The number of people who would and could come to help was small. (N of one, actually.)

Part two of our three-part series on Solo living focuses on what we’re calling “Practical Life,” which after much back and forth, we’re defining as “all the things that need to happen to make your life work.” This includes keeping yourself fed, clothed, watered, caffeinated, warm, dry, safe, and reasonably diverted. 

When there is no division of labor in the home, how does everything get done? And not just the dramatic stuff, like when the basement floods on a Sunday (fun), but the mundane stuff, like how solo householders eat.

Who is their emergency contact? Who has their spare keys? Does anyone know where they are all the time? Does that even matter to them? (It doesn’t, to many.)

What do they do for themselves, pay to outsource, or get someone to do for them out of love? What do they do more of (podcasts, anyone?) and less of (buying toilet paper by the palette)?

We’ve identified three dimensions of practical life we are actively exploring:

1. What Solos need to keep the house running

Eating, cleaning, keeping the lights on – all the things that go into running a household – we want to explore how those things are different for Solos. What do they buy? What do they need that they can’t find?  Why is it more expensive to buy a small head of broccoli than one the size of a baby rhino?

As Sam asked me once: Can you tell me why a 12-pack of pasta is only twice the price of a box of pasta in the same store? (I can, but I didn’t want to upset him.)  But it’s a good question: Are Solos penalized for consuming less? And how do they respond?

We’re seeing some early patterns: Do-it-yourselfers who become incredibly adept at all kinds of things; outsourcers who pay someone to get things done; and communitarians (does anyone have a better name for this group?), which are Solos who have done an amazing job weaving a network of friends and family to step in to substitute for a household.

2. What Solos watch (or listen to)

A nearly inescapable fact of modern life (although Lord knows I try) is how much we bond through mass media – what’s on Netflix, who watches Game of Thrones, verdict on the last Avengers movie. We’re looking into how media consumption (which includes podcasts and music) may be different for Solos – not just what they watch, but how and why they watch it: we suspect that the emotionality – what drives Solos to media consumption, what else they do while and after they watch or listen – may be different.

We may be wrong; it’s early days, and what’s the point of research if you already know how it ends? (Kind of like a good mini-series). But we know, at a minimum, that when household formation changes, especially from Plus One to Solo, media consumption goes up. TV consumption by recently divorced men skyrockets, as does listening to podcasts. What other differences are there with Solos?

I, personally, have a pet theory that Netflix is the new Xanax – a nearly psycho-pharmacological, and certainly epidemic, method of self-soothing. Think it over before you dismiss that out of hand.

3. What Solos need to stay healthy

What’s different about the way Solos take care of their health? The most obvious difference is that there isn’t anyone immediately around to help, of course, so what are the implications of that?

What do Solos do after knee surgery, and can’t even stand up long enough to do their own dishes? If they break an arm, and they can’t get own pants on, much less shower? When they run a high fever, or get the flu, or poison ivy, or food poisoning, what’s different about the way they manage? Are their strategies different? Do they need different services or products? Who gets their medicine – or your chicken soup – when they can’t get out of bed? 

By the way, that’s just the quotidian stuff. Notice we didn’t even get into the really serious stuff, like who is their healthcare proxy? Their power of attorney (POA)?  Do they ever even discuss any of these things with anyone? (If you haven’t, I’m begging you, actually begging you, to get these taken care of now.)

What we learn from these lines of inquiry are going to give us insight for our clients in Consumer Packaged Goods, Media & Entertainment, and Healthcare, respectively. On the whole, those industries still design and market for Plus Ones. 

My friend Tracey told me she thinks she’s penalized for physically taking up less space – the table by the bathroom, a closet for a hotel room. She started booking tables for 2 and hotel rooms for 2; it doesn’t cost any more, and she gets treated like a person.

Is that any way to treat 35 million (and counting) adults? Let’s get this party started.

Also read:

Exploring Business Trends: The Rise of the Solo Householder.

The Solo Project: The Finances of Living Alone.