When I was a little girl, I went to the grocery store with my Uncle Richard, who was then the head of Pillsbury for Asia. At the check-out counter, we watched the lady in front of us buy a half-dozen frozen meals. My uncle said, “That’s the future, kiddo. Meals for one. That’s where all the money is.”
“In Salisbury steak?”
“Food for one used to be less than 1% of our revenue,” he said. “It’s about 20% now, and it’s the part of our product line that’s growing the fastest. All over the world. People get richer, they live alone. Especially you women.”
He was right about that. In one generation, living alone has transformed from a temporary condition – a stopgap measure on the way to somewhere better – into a permanent lifestyle choice. For the first time since Census (poor, beleaguered Census) started collecting data, single person households are an enduring household composition, equally as stable as the nuclear family.
In other words, people who live alone today are likely to keep living alone. Until now, living alone wasn’t just rarer, but it was also temporary: Most people did not live alone – ever – and if they did, it was for a short period of time, between marriages or jobs.
There was a stigma to it.
Living Independently has Become Ordinary, and Businesses Have Taken Notice
If you’re older than 50, you likely grew up believing that living alone was something pitiable that happened to sad people: widows, the destitute, spinsters. There is nothing in your DNA to prepare you for the enormous economic, social, and cultural influence that solo dwellers now wield: something between an utterly unremarkable mainstream norm – in itself a sea change – to a situation to be envied and admired. (If you’re younger than 50, we’re really glad you’re not saddled with this stupid idea.)
Even more remarkable is that the hegemonic rise of the Solo Householder – meaning people who live alone, regardless of anything else – signals an entirely unprecedented way of organizing human society. Never in the history of mankind has it been materially possible or socially desirable for so many people to live alone – not just live, but flourish and thrive, managing a household on their own.
In North America, there are almost 35+ million adults who are living alone today in single-occupancy households. This is more than one in four households. In big cities, it’s half; sometimes more than half. In certain zip codes in some big cities, it’s two-thirds.
And the majority – 54% – are women.
Those 35 million Solo householders are changing everything around us. Not just the way almost everything is packaged, priced, and marketed, but also the way new homes are designed, how new communities are architected, how seating is arranged in restaurants, cafes, bars, hotel lobbies, hotel rooms, stadiums, and movie theatres. The way services, from lawn mowing to housecleaning to travel and airfare is priced and sold. It’s changing the intellectual focus of social, natural, and material scientists, reshaping the normative beliefs of community leaders, artists, intellectuals, and most importantly, future generations. Slowly – too slowly – it’s forcing financial advisors and asset managers to come up with a more useful model of saving and investing than the decrepit post-war Mad Men model we’ve had to make do with for the last 50+ years.
The Impacts of Solo Living Arrangements For Various Industries Are Immense
Pillsbury never anticipated the cascading impact of how different Solo householders were in critical dimensions: What was important to them? What did it mean to be “stocked up”? What was “enough?” How did Solo householders shop, spend their time and money? Who were they with?
If they had looked at the right trends (like we do), they would have seen it coming. Put another way, they could have seen differences in Solo householders: how they lived, how they took care of themselves, and how they related to the world at large – all of which turns out to be meaningfully different when you are doing everything for yourself.
Here at Maru/Matchbox, we are thinking about what this means – for our clients, our society, and of course for the solo householders themselves.
For Pillsbury and my Uncle Richard, it meant a shockingly lucrative revenue stream, one that they had not properly predicted. They were totally unprepared for the (nearly usuriously) higher margins, the opportunity to refresh and rebrand with a lucrative new segment, to change America’s relationship with food and the kitchen, and to design innovative products, services, and packaging which would then, in turn, unleash new trends themselves.
For that lady in front of us, it meant she didn’t have to spend money and buy groceries (or soon, anything else) in greater quantities than she needed or wanted, wasting money, space, and time. It meant she was free to do other things with her time, now she could have dinner quickly, easily, and inexpensively – critical, since for her, there was only one person to earn the money for the groceries, shop, transport, prepare, cook, store, clean, and dispense with, a single meal.
For that little girl in the check-out line and millions of other children like her, it meant that Solo living was a choice and not fate. A choice, it turns out, that today leads to healthier, longer, more prosperous, and possibly more fulfilling, lives. It turned into a manifestation of freedom.
Exploring Insights on Those Who Live Alone
In the last five years, we have seen a spate of excellent empirical data on the rise of Solo living from a variety of disciplines. In the coming weeks, our qualitative research team at Maru/Matchbox will be exploring three key dimensions of Solo living, identifying differences in the way Solo householders move in the world versus the rest of the population.
The three insights into living alone we will be looking at are:
- Financial Life: How do Solo householders make financial decisions? What are the life events, triggers, and desires that drive those decisions?
- Practical Life: How do Solo householders take care of themselves? Who do they put down as their emergency contact? Their next of kin? Who do they borrow from? Lend money to? Where do they go when they need help with something?
- Inner Life: How do Solo householders meet their emotional, social, and psychological needs?
To get us going, let’s start this week with a softball question: Not only are Solo householders different from other households, but they are also a pretty heterogeneous pack in and among themselves. There are many paths to Solo living. What is yours?