The rise of single households

Single Swedes find ways of being alone together

7:23 min

In Sweden, one in two households has just one occupant, and most singles seem to flock to the bigger cities. Why are Swedes so keen on living alone? And with rising rents and growing housing shortages in cities like Stockholm, could the trend be changing?

When it comes to solitary living, Swedes are not alone. In the United States, a record number of people now live by themselves. And the trend seems to be particularly strong in urban centres, where housing is also hard to come by and rents are high.

In Manhattan, nearly every other household consists of just one person. The same is true for London and Paris. But in Stockholm, the figure is even higher. Sixty per cent of households in the Swedish capital are occupied by single residents.

While some prefer the freedom and independence that comes with solo living, others are finding ways of being alone together.

Monica William-Olsson is the founder of Färdknäppen, a community-owned apartment building for people in what Monica calls the "second half of life". It is located in Södermalm, Stockholm and has been around for 25 years.

Explaining why she decided to form a collective house, William-Olsson told Radio Sweden:

"I started Färdknäppen when my youngest child had moved out and I was just sitting alone, wondering will I be as lonely as this for the rest of my life?"

At Färdknäppen, 50 residents aged 40 and up live in their own separate apartments. They have their own kitchens and bathrooms. But they also have access to 400 square metres of communal space. There's a laundry room, a garden, a roof terrace, a computer room and even spaces for weaving and woodworking. Everyone pitches in to clean the common areas and to cook communal meals that are served every evening in the ground-floor dining hall.

"I think most of us have chosen this way of living for the same reason: the children have moved out and you feel you want to stay in some form of coexistence with other people," says William-Olsson.

"It's very popular. We have more people waiting to move in than there is room for," she adds.

It is true that houses like Färdknäppen are becoming more popular. Similar communes have been established in the cities of Gothenburg, Malmö, Lund and Falun. But single people who choose to live communally are still an exception.

Lars Trägårdh is a Swedish historian and co-author of the book Is The Swede Human?. He believes the chances of communal living becoming the norm are slim.

"I don't think they will become the norm, but they will become part of a broad offering of many different types of alternative ways of living," says Trägårdh.

"What makes them interesting is the voluntariness of them. In other words, people choose freely to live like this. And they are transitory, that is people live this way for just a certain number of years."

Why, then, does Sweden stand out when it comes to the high number of single households? Trägårdh says that Sweden is a "radically individualistic" country with a social structure that enables people to live independently - that is, to avoid having to rely on one another.

"It has something to do both with values and with the types of institutions we have created in Sweden in more recent decades," explains Trägårdh.

"Individual autonomy has been important for a long time here, as well as the idea that relationships - even in family and love - should be voluntary. And our institutions guarantee the possibility for relationships to be voluntary, for individuals to make the decision to leave a relationship if they so wish."

Sweden has instituted a number of policies that have enabled individuals to live by themselves, should they want to do so, says Trägårdh. But he adds that living alone does not necessarily mean you are lonely. In fact, he points to evidence suggesting that singles have more varied, broad and active social lives than many couples.

As for Monica at Färdknäppen, she's confident that Sweden will see a growth in communal living. But she admits it can be tricky.

"I have made some of my best friends here but 50 people cannot be close friends. We like each other but we also have conflicts and we have to solve those, just as in any family."