home alone

analysis, 14 august 2003

KENAN MALIK   Surveys suggest that in less than a generation 40 per cent of Britons will be living in single-person households. If they're right, that will be the biggest demographic and cultural change of our lifetimes. For Mary Balfour, who runs this country's longest established dating agency Drawing Down the Moon, it heralds a world of new freedoms and possibilities.

MARY BALFOUR   People think it's quite cool to be single today and the single lifestyle and all the culture and media stuff that goes with it is definitely okay, and I don't think people do worry about being single any more. Now it's for the first time in history that women can be economically independent and own their own properties. You know I mean even back in the sixties you had to get a man to sign your guarantee your mortgage for you if you were a woman, that's not very long ago. Now we have this wonderful freedom and, and women can do their own thing and it's great.

KENAN MALIK   What does the rise of the singleton society mean for the way that people experience personal relationships? And what are social consequences these changes? There have always, of course, in every society, in every age, been people living by themselves - widowers, divorcees, those whom we used to call spinsters. But they were always a tiny minority, and most were single by force of circumstance rather than by choice. What's different today is that a lifestyle that was marginal has become mainstream. Seven million adults live alone in Britain today - three times as many as 40 years ago. According to the statistic bible Social Trends, this figure will more than double in the next 20 years. Single people used to be treated with condescension or pity. No longer.

RICHARD SCASE   In my view, this shift to singleness is a very good thing.

KENAN MALIK   Richard Scase, a leading business forecaster of socio-economic trends and author of Britain in 2010.

RICHARD SCASE   Remember, living alone and living with a partner is rather like getting on and off a bus, it's not a permanent status, so the future lifestyle will be characterised by a period where one is living with a partner, then followed by a period of living alone, then followed by a period of living with another partner, and so on, and to me this is an indication of, of a far more liberated culture, a more democratic culture and one which is much more preferable than in the past, when men and women were putting up with each other, living together, but quite literally loathed each other. It's not so long ago there was a lot of stigma attached to divorce. Now we live in a much more kind of hedonistic live today culture, because we don't know what tomorrow's going to bring. In the past, a couple would be living together, the man would work until he was 65, and would probably die two or three years later. Now, men retire in their late fifties and there's often a thinking amongst couples well, can't put up with him around the house for the next thirty years, he's going to live until his late seventies, early eighties, so let's split up. In other words, we're in a much more hedonistic, live now, enjoy, enjoy society.

KENAN MALIK   Relationships have become part of the consumer society. Since there is less need to enter relationships for economic reasons, many people, especially many women, have greater choice as to how they live. Both men and women now choose partners, and living arrangements, as they might choose their Mediterranean holiday or the colour scheme for their loft apartment. And they often come to people like Mary Balfour when they want to find those partners. So what are her clients looking for?

MARY BALFOUR   Everybody says the same sort of thing. They all talk about things like I want to meet someone who is independent, who's curious, who's playful, who shares all my values and my outlook, and I'm looking for a permanent relationship. I think everybody's looking for the quality of the emotional connection much more now than they would have done in the old days. Then I think they do look for something that is very
romantic in the sense of it being about tenderness, emotional tenderness, being a best friend and a lover.

KENAN MALIK   According to Mary Balfour, then, we seem to have - or at least to want - the best of all possible worlds. Freedom and independence on the one hand, and emotionally sustaining relationships based on real intimacy, on the other. But for Zygmunt Bauman, Emeritus Professor of sociology at Leeds University, the very fact that our culture seems fixated by questions of relationships and lifestyles tells a very different story.

ZYGMUNT BAUMAN   Tell me what you are obsessively thinking about and I will tell you what you are afraid of, what creates the most awesome difficulties in your life and what you need most energy to actually overcome, or even to face up to. It is a question of a certain deregulation of the environment in which we operate. There are no hard and fast rules, there are no lasting principles of action, and tussling in this awful net of contradictory precepts. On the one hand the need of relationship because I must have some support, I can't be alone, I have to safeguard myself, I need a lifejacket in this turbulent sea. On the other hand, the fear that once I get it, that I am finished. My freedom is over and I won't be able to properly react to the new opportunities, new chances, and so on.

KENAN MALIK   And there's the rub. The same social changes that are leading to the singleton society are creating a yearning for durable relationships - but also make us worry that such relationships will undermine the very freedoms we hope single living will bring.

JAN MACVARISH   There's a strange combination at the moment of this high ideal of what should be achieved through relationships and the sense of fulfilment that we demand at any present moment, but at the same time very low expectations of actually achieving that. And also a very cautious approach and a very fearful approach to actually getting really involved in the work of intimacy.

KENAN MALIK   Jan MacVarish, a sociologist at the University of Kent, who is currently conducting a major research project on the changing lives of single women. The talk about single living providing new kinds of freedoms, she argues, misses the point.

JAN MACVARISH  The problem emerges in the way in which we as society make sense of the increasing number of single people. There's a danger in the way we make sense of it that we tend to re-define what freedom means. Increasingly freedom is understood as freedom from other people. Rather than the freedom to do things which might well mean that we need to be involved with other people. So I think the re-definition of freedom which had happened through the discussion of the singleton is something that is a cause of concern for me because I do think we're starting to have a sort of assumption that freedom means a freedom from emotional entanglements that necessarily go along with fulfilling relationships.

KENAN MALIK   What is driving the singleton society, in other words, is not just the greater personal and economic freedom that many people now enjoy. It is also the greater fragmentation of society and the breaking down of wider social networks. This leads to a sort of paradox. On the one hand, as Mary Balfour suggests from her vantage point as director of a number of dating agencies, people look for relationships based on emotional bonding. On the other hand, as Jan MacVarish implies from her empirical work on single women, people seem frightened by emotional attachments, often viewing them as a prison. It's a paradox personified by Bridget Jones - a woman who is free and independent and yet frustrated that she cannot find the kind of relationship she is looking for. Here's Mary Evans, professor of Women's Studies at the University of Kent.

MARY EVANS   Both men and women in various kinds of relationships have developed ideas about relationships which are becoming increasingly impossible to meet. The things that people are looking for are essentially, first of all, the kind of intimacy very often that children have with their parents and particularly with their mothers, so what we're looking for is a curious kind of thing. We want to return to the kinds of intimate relationships which we had, or we think we had or we would like to have had when we were children, but at the same time we want to achieve that intimacy within the context of greater autonomy and greater independence. Now there's clearly a conflict here between these two things, it's very, very difficult to meet these two things, but of course we're driven, all of us, by the need for intimacy.

KENAN MALIK   Are you saying then that the kinds of intimacy to which we aspire have changed over the last fifty, hundred years.

MARY EVANS   Yes I am saying that and I think there's a considerable amount of evidence to support that. I think we're looking for, for example, much higher degrees of sexual satisfaction than we used to, people aren't content any longer to live in relationships in which they don't, don't find sexual satisfaction, in which they don't find long term romance.

KENAN MALIK   But perhaps the conflict between a desire for greater autonomy, on the one hand, and a childlike intimacy, on the other, is more apparent than real. What a child seeks from its parents is total reassurance and comfort - for its every need to be catered to. Children may be naïve or innocent - but they are also selfish and demanding. And that's exactly what our 'hedonistic, enjoy, enjoy' culture seems to be fostering - an almost child-like selfishness in our assessment of relationships. Relationships exist to provide people with enjoyment and satisfaction, and when they no longer do so, they move on to the next photo in the dating agency folder. And, as Professor Deborah Cameron a sociolinguist at the Institute of Education suggests, the growth of the 'me' society has helped transform our understanding of what intimacy means.

DEBORAH CAMERON   Intimacy as we conceive it in modern western societies is no longer just about sharing physical space or social experience with other people, it's about being able to share their inner lives, their thoughts and their feelings, and to do that you need language, and more especially a particular way of using language, where you're continually revealing to other people what your innermost thoughts and feelings are, and that has changed what we value in communication, so if you look at advice literature, even as recently as the 1950s, you'll find, for instance, that it contains prohibitions on talking about yourself, that's immodest, rude, not of interest to other people. Today in advice books on communication, the focus is really all on talking about yourself.

KENAN MALIK   Do you think relationships today then possess a therapeutic character?

DEBORAH CAMERON  I think the sort of talking that you're supposed to do possesses a highly therapeutic character. I think that one of the places we got this notion of intimacy as dependent on a particular sort of talking is from the popularisation of what originated as therapeutic techniques that were used in clinics by psychiatrists and psychologists. We're talking about the kind of talk where someone says honestly what they are feeling, where they use the techniques of, say, assertiveness training instead of hiding their feelings or stating them indirectly, they'll say to someone 'I feel hurt when you talk to me in that way or when you do this, or that', so it's 'I' statements, emotional self disclosure where you lay bare experiences, thoughts or feelings that in polite society you might be encouraged to hide. That's the kind of talk that is thought of as leading to intimacy. And I do think that's a misguided belief. That relationships break down not because of material problems or incompatibilities of a non-linguistic sort but because people couldn't communicate.

KENAN MALIK   You only have to watch Oprah or Jerry Springer to realise that emotional self-disclosure may not necessarily be a good thing. But a whole 'relationship industry' has sprung up to tell us not just that it's good to talk but good to talk about ourselves. Obsessively. Even tough guy Tony Soprano wants to bare his soul. And as our ideas of intimacy have changed, so it has come to mean not just a greater honesty about our emotions but also making public what once might have been thought of as private feelings. Here's Deborah Cameron again.

DEBORAH CAMERON   I'm a feminist, so I wouldn't want to turn back the clock to a time where there were experiences or feelings that just couldn't be talked about in public discourse at all, but I do think that the excess of it, the constant exhortations to emote in public, may, may cheapen the private, the more private and personal expressions of emotion. I think they also make people feel very anxious and insecure about whether they're doing it right in their private life. I think there's immense anxiety.

KENAN MALIK   Nowhere is the erosion of the distinction between public and the private more apparent than on the internet. Mary Balfour runs not just a conventional dating agency, but is also a pioneer of internet dating, with over 30 000 members signed up to her site, Love and Other sites boast up to a million members. The secret of their success, as Mary Balfour acknowledges, lies in the willingness of people to make public their most intimate thoughts on the world wide web.

MARY BALFOUR   For some people, the medium of using the internet is, is actually encouraging them to express themselves better, particularly men who perhaps don't express themselves verbally so easily. They feel more confident and more safe on the internet. Probably they find it easier to flirt, and I think women find it confidence boosting in another way, that perhaps it's much more easy for them to take control, be more assertive, take the initiative and this sort of thing on the internet, so for them it's more positive and I think it brings out the best of both men and women. I think that for a lot of people, the internet allows them to actually get in touch with that side of themselves which is ready for a relationship. It allows them to get in touch with it much more quickly 'cos they're not worried about being immediately judged and it's, you know, you, you meet someone on a first date in a cafe or a bar and you're worried about your hair, your look, you know, what you're wearing and all of these things. Now I know that a lot of people in the internet do have photos, but you can choose your photo and you can choose the photo that best represents you and the sort of signals and messages that you want to give out.

KENAN MALIK   But is that not a kind of virtual relationship, isn't part of what you are the way you look, the way are and so on, and in presenting a false image of yourself, or potentially a false image of yourself, aren't you creating a false basis for a relationship?

MARY BALFOUR   I think for those who exploit the internet dishonestly and give out false signals about themselves, I think that would be wrong. But we find with Love and that 99 per cent of the members are genuinely out there looking for a real relationship and they are looking for love.

RICHARD SCASE   I personally know one or two people who do use the internet who have registered with on line dating agencies. It does become, I think rather a dehumanising experience, that they go through website after website of photos and self descriptions and the whole thing is becoming, I think, rather commoditised, and that is the downside of the internet dating agency business.

KENAN MALIK   Richard Scase. The internet, and other new technologies such as mobile phones and texting, provide new means of meeting people and communicating - not to mention of ending affairs. But they also express the conflicts and problems of contemporary relationships. Internet dating and chat rooms allow people to pick and choose, to move from one target to the next, to play at relationships. They allow for relationships emptied of the sweat and blood of real life. That's why they can seem so attractive - and so dehumanising. That's also why, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, they provide perfect metaphors for the shallowness of our social lives. He entitled his latest book Liquid Love to describe the quicksilver, skating-on-the-surface, always-on-the-move approach that many people have to both love and life.

ZYGMUNT BAUMAN   The currently fashionable expression is surfing, we surf, we are surfing everywhere, we are surfing from one job to another, one project to another, from one, today's geographical place to another, from one set of connections, one network to another, even the idea of network is like that because network, you know, connects the two notions, connecting and disconnecting. You are guaranteed to be able to disconnect at any moment. As one of the objects of very interesting investigation about the contemporary manners of dating put it why he likes internet dating: because when you use internet, you can always press delete. Now you know to be assured that there is a way out without reproach, without guilty conscious, without acrimony, that is the secret of moving fast. When we're skating on thin ice, your salvation is in speed, so you have to hurry not leaving behind you traces, very deep traces.

KENAN MALIK   So you're saying that we live in a culture in which we want to keep all our options open all the time?

YGMUNT BAUMAN   That's precisely the point, yes.Top pocket relationship. Keep them in your top pocket, if you need it you pick it out, if you don't, you put it back, you know. So you are just surfing over the network, and the wider the network - not the deeper the
network, the wider the network - the better.

KENAN MALIK   It should not surprise us, then, that the latest fad is speed dating. Several hundred strangers meet up in a room, have a maximum of three minutes to talk to someone, and decide whether they want to hook up with them. A perfect way, perhaps, to find a top-pocket relationship. So what's happened to old-fashioned romantic love in all this?

MARY EVANS   I think romantic love was initially, say two hundred years ago, a form of emancipation.

KENAN MALIK   Professor Mary Evans, from the University of Kent.

MARY EVANS   What romance gave to women was the right to say I won't marry this person because I do not love him, now that's a form of emancipation, that's a step forward from a situation in which women were simply told, you'll marry this husband because he will support you, so romance, a sense of personal choice, I think for the west was an emancipatory discourse.

What, I think, has happened has been that something which was, which was an ideal and recognised as such, has become generalised into a usual expectation. And I think it's now become almost a fantasy, and I wouldn't quite go so far as to say a dangerous fantasy but certainly a misleading one.

KENAN MALIK   Are you not really saying that we should have lower expectations of what we can get out of a relationship?

MARY EVANS   Actually I am, which sounds awful and grim and despairing, but I think not so much lower expectations, but I think we should have more dilute perhaps expectations, expectations which we can achieve.

KENAN MALIK   This might seem sensible advice: don't turn real relationships into fantasies. But it also fits in with the zeitgeist: Don't expect too much, don't risk too much emotional investment, keep all your options open. The fantasy of the perfect partner often goes hand in hand with an instrumental, almost business-like approach to relationships. People expect perfection on a plate. But they don't want to invest too much in a relationship in case they get insufficient returns. A culture that encourages us to cultivate the self at the expense of all else, leaves little room for notions such as commitment or self-sacrifice - notions that traditionally have been at the heart of any discussion of relationships. Little wonder that there should today be such ambivalence about relationships.

What's clear from all this is that the growth of the singleton society is both a major demographic change - possibly the biggest since the Second World War - and an expression of a dramatic cultural shift. Yet, not a single one of our interviewees thought that policy makers had even begun to think about the significance of the changes taking place. For business forecaster Richard Scase, society needs to adapt - and adapt fast - to the home alone phenomenon.

RICHARD SCASE   The ramifications of more men and women living alone is absolutely enormous, for example, it's projected by 2015, we will need another four and a half million new homes. Eighty percent of that demand is generated by the increase in single person households. Where are those houses going to be constructed? Further ramifications, of course, in terms of health and welfare. If you're ill or if you have to go into hospital for an operation, the after care costs are much greater if you live alone compared with if you're living with somebody where there's the mutual care and support, and the also of course, there's the very simple kind of consequences in terms of leisure and recreation. Leisure and recreation in Britain are still structured around the idea of the couple. Holidays for example, single people still have to pay a, a scandalous single person supplement. Well all this is going to change I think, very significantly, over the next few years.

KENAN MALIK   Such changes will clearly have an enormous impact upon both our physical and social landscape. But perhaps the biggest change will be in the very way we think of what constitutes a society or a community. Here's Rebecca O'Neill, a researcher at the right-leaning think tank Civitas and the author of a report on family breakdown.

REBECCA O'NEILL   If they're choosing to live alone, every time they break up and live alone, they're breaking networks. Some people aregue that friendships - you know these people who live alone have wonderful networks - but I think the recent, recent research shows that that's not really the case in, in most instances.

KENAN MALIK   What do you think the consequences are for the social fabric?

REBECCA O'NEILL   People who live alone, even if they're living alone just a portion of their lives, aren't as integrated into the community and they aren't able to, to monitor the neighbourhood as well. There was one study in the US on neighbourhoods where it said just living in a neighbourhood that had a high rate of single people living there, controlling the level of income, even if you control for that, just living amongst a bunch of single people meant the crime rate was going to be higher, much more likely to become a victim of crime. If you're living alone, it's just a matter of you do have to go out and look for people but unfortunately, these kind of people don't usually, you know, volunteer, they don't usually get involved in organisations like churches or voluntary organisations or even sort of join clubs like they used to. Nowadays it's all very individual, they go on, they go on more holidays, they go away for the weekend and they go to clubs, which is fine for a point in your life, but it doesn't make for a strong community.

Marriage and partnerships are institutions and, and ways of living that don't have to be the same way they were in the 1950s. The important thing is the promise to stay together, to work through things. There's a range of benefits that can be acquired for the individuals in, in a marriage, for their children and for society as well.

KENAN MALIK   This might sound like an old-fashioned plea for the return of traditional social mores. But Rebecca O'Neill's warning that single living raises broader questions about the viability of social networks and institutions is surely right. As the sociologist Jan MacVarish suggests, a debate about singleton society is far more than a debate about singletons.

JAN MACVARISH   Our ambivalence about relationships is a problem for everybody, whether we are in relationships or not. Because anything that encourages us to hold back or to distance ourselves from other people is a problem. Anything that encourages us to take a cautious approach to emotional entanglements and to see emotional entaglements as a threat to our sense of self, will lead to a society that's reconciled to isolation. If we place a high premium on individuals being self contained and independent of other people, we ignore the social reality that our lives are intertwined. The danger of the notion of a society as a singleton society is that we deny ourselves the opportunity to experiment with those relationships and those encounters. And instead are pre-equipped with a rationale of caution.

KENAN MALIK   Just as we are building gated communities, so we are developing gated individuals. People might tell dating agencies that they desire relationships with greater intimacy. But they also tend to view autonomy as keeping other people at arm's length. This is true, Jan MacVarish suggests, not just of singletons, but of those in traditional relationships, too. For Zygmunt Bauman, this corrosion of personal relationships mirrors the corrosion our social relationships.

ZYGMUNT BAUMAN   Fifty years ago, our fathers, our grandfathers, thought also about happiness, they wanted happiness as much as we do, but they thought that the road to happiness reached by making society a better, more hospitable place for human beings. Now it is the question on the contrary, 'I want more space', that's the war cry which you hear most. And 'I want more space' means 'you keep away'. One would say that in the old system, there was a lot of security and very little freedom. Now we have another system, it means we have a lot of freedom and very little security.

KENAN MALIK   We haven't simply swapped security for freedom. Insecurity has led to a greater disengagement from other people, in both our social and personal lives. The singleton society certainly expresses the greater possibilities of freedom and individual choice, particularly for women. But it also expresses the narrowing of what we mean by freedom, and of the greater fragmentation and atomisation of society. Isn't it time we began to address the consequences?