Hint: loner isn’t it!
People who live with other people are couples, families, extended families, shared houses, or friends. They identify in relation to those around them – his partner, their girlfriend, her parents, his / her / their wife / husband, their housemate/s. Spend less than five minutes online, or in any book shop, and you’ll immediately be able to get hold of pages and pages of advice on how to live in any one of these types of households.
But what about people who live by themselves?
A new community
The rise of living alone (especially as a preferred lifestyle choice) is a relatively new trend – so new, in fact, that there isn’t yet one commonly used word to describe us! As far as we’re aware, The Living Well Alone Project is one of only a handful of groups globally thinking about and talking about people who live alone as a community, and the idea is pretty new in research circles too.
‘One person households’ is fine for statistical and data collection purposes, and I ‘live by myself’ or ‘I live alone’ are sufficient answers to direct questions. But what if we want something that says a little bit more about who we are as people?
Onesies and Mono-Dwellers
Back in January, we thought we’d use our position as one of the largest online communities of solos to try to work out what people living alone would like to be called. When we asked, the ideas flew in thick and fast, and they were absolutely brilliant. Favourites of mine included ‘mono-dwellers,’ ‘self sufficient superstars,’ ‘lone wolves,’ ‘selves,’ ‘selfies,’ ‘indies / independents,’ ‘singulars.’ ‘Onesies’ was my favorite of all!
I’m holding all these for when we finally get round to making our own line of t-shirts. And while they were all fantastic, they weren’t at the top of the list. No, mono-dwellers really hasn’t caught on yet!
So what are some more commonly used words for people who live alone?
The vast majority of people who live alone are also not in a relationship (around 80%, according to our own survey, although this was mostly completed by people younger than 70 – the real percentage is probably higher). In the news, and in blogs, research and podcasts you’ll often hear ‘singles’ used in a way which overlaps with ‘people who live alone.’ There’s a huge amount of material out there on how to date or not date, how to live a successful single life, and some fascinating new insights into the varied lifestyles of people who aren’t in relationships. There are books, TED talks, podcasts, shows, and much of this is incredibly useful for people in our community (I would encourage you to read anything by Bella Depaulo, who is probably the world’s leading expert on single life).
We also, of course, hear ‘single parents’ used to describe parents who are bringing up their child without a partner.
However ‘single’ as a term can be problematic when talking about people who live alone. Not everyone who lives alone is single – a lot of people are in relationships with people they don’t live with, or live alone because their partner is travelling or working away from home. And not everyone who is single lives alone!
The other problem with ‘single’ is that it links a person’s identity solely to their relationship status. For people who’ve made a conscious choice not to couple up, this can feel deeply uncomfortable. It’s also hard to imagine someone who’s recently lost a partner – or someone who’s just come through a painful divorce or separation – being comfortable with being described with a label that implies an openness to a new relationship.
It’s telling that in our survey, ‘single’ barely featured on the list of terms that people living alone said they wanted used to describe them. So while ‘single’ has its uses, it’s clear we need a different term.
Living Alone Together
We’re increasingly hearing Living Alone Together (or LAT) used to describe people who live in their own places, and have partners (usually longer term partners) who live elsewhere. They might spend a couple of nights a week together, but they don’t live together in the traditional sense. It’s great to see this increasingly common way of living recognised with its own term. However it’s still a term which only applies to a small number of people of live alone. And it’s relational, in that it uses ‘living alone’ to describe two people’s relationship to one another.
More and more often, we’re starting to hear variations on the word ‘solo’ to describe people who live alone (solo, solos, soloist). It can also be used descriptively – for example, ‘solo living,’ ‘solo adventure.’
When polled, this was the word people in our community said they most resonated with, and would most like as a description. Some people liked the idea of being a solo star on stage, others with the association of travel and adventure reinforced in popular culture. Roald Dahl’s autobiography ‘Going Solo’ details the author’s travels to Africa and exploits as a WW2 pilot. There’s a James Bond continuation novel by William Boyd called ‘Solo,’ and Kwame Alexander’s 2017 book of the same name has been described as ‘a contemporary hero’s journey.’ There’s of course also the rugged, rebellious intergalactic character of Han Solo from the Star Wars trilogies.
It’s telling that the word’s associations are a long way from the ‘sad and lonely’ stereotype that still pervades society’s perception of what it means to live alone. People living alone want more than anything to be recognised for what they are, rather than what they are not – not lacking, not waiting for someone to complete them in some way, but interesting, authentic, connected, intelligent people who are out in world experiencing everything it has to offer. And they’ve chosen a word for themselves that reflects this.
Here is what one person in our community had to say:
‘I am someone who sings solo and it takes courage to get up there on the stage and be judged for good or bad. If you fail it’s your hit, if you succeed the accolades are all yours. You choose the content and variety of your act, and can access more areas than a duet!’
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Solo: not just a statistic – instead, a positive, meaningful identity. The era of solo living is here!