Business

More Canadians live alone than ever before: StatsCan report

The number of Canadians living alone has more than doubled in the past 35 years, making single-person households the most common type, a new report by Statistics Canada shows.

Single-person households have more than doubled in the past 35 years

A woman selects produce in a Toronto grocery store. The food industry is just one of many adapting to the rise of single-person households in this country. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The number of Canadians living alone has more than doubled in the past 35 years, making single-person households the most common type, a new report by Statistics Canada shows.

Using both the latest census data and the 2017 General Social Survey on Family, the authors determined that this growing group is now larger than the one composed of couples with kids, as well as the category made up of couples living alone.

Where once it was mostly widowed seniors — usually women — who lived by themselves, the age range and gender breakdown of solo dwellers is far more diverse than it once was.

"What we've seen over the last few decades is the fastest growing age group for living alone is middle adulthood, so age 35-64," said Nora Galbraith, co-author of the report and a senior analyst in Statistics Canada's demography division.

Nora Galbraith is a senior analyst in the demography division of Statistics Canada and co-author of the study Living alone in Canada, released Wednesday. It found the number of people living alone now comprises the largest demographic group in Canada, eclipsing couples with children. (Christopher Steven B. Photography)

In 1981, just eight per cent of people in that age group lived alone, but that figure increased to 13 per cent by 2016. Galbraith says much of that increase is related to faster growth in the number of men living alone in those age groups.

In addition to increased life expectancies for men, the advent of no-fault divorce in Canada has contributed to the more even gender distribution of single-person households.

"Part of this is reflecting the increasing rates of union dissolution that have occurred over the last few decades," said Galbraith. "We know that while co-parenting following a separation or divorce is on the rise, it's still the fact that most children have their primary residence with their mother after a separation or divorce. That means that fathers are more likely to live alone, at least for a period of time."

More flexible attitude toward family structure

Numerous other social changes have made living alone more common, said Galbraith. Take young adults in their 20s and 30s, for example. 

"We no longer, as a society, define adulthood as equating with being married, especially as more young people are pursuing higher education," she said.

Among women ages 25 to 34, for example, 77 per cent of those who live alone have a college degree, compared to 67 per cent of those who live with others, the report found. Higher education is correlated with forming romantic unions and starting families at later ages, said Galbraith.

Not everyone who lives alone intends to stay that way for the long haul, the report found.

"A large majority did intend to form a union in the future, so that suggests that living alone is a stepping stone for them," Galbraith said.

Neither men nor women are required or expected to have a partner, so some are choosing not to and remaining single.- Nora Spinks, CEO, Vanier Institute of the Family

Nora Spinks, CEO of non-profit research centre the Vanier Institute of the Family, watches demographic trends closely and says she wasn't surprised by the report's findings.

"Neither men nor women are required or expected to have a partner, so some are choosing not to and remaining single and living single," she said.

But not everyone who lives alone is romantically unattached. Many are in what's now known as a living apart together (LAT) relationship — involved but not residing with a significant other.

The report says one third of people between the ages of 20 and 34 are in LAT relationships. Among those in the middle adulthood years of 35 to 64, that number is 20 per cent.

Spinks said LAT relationships arise in all kinds of circumstances. Divorced parents whose kids spend every second weekend with them might prefer not to move everyone under one roof. Other couples might have work in different cities.

"All of those are going to show up in the data as single-person dwellings," Spinks said.

Opportunity for businesses

Eddy Ng, a professor of business and economics at Dalhousie University in Halifax with a specialty in demographics, has been in a LAT relationship for 10 years. His partner, who is in construction, has stayed in Toronto where the industry is booming. Like many other academics, Ng was compelled to move where tenure-track positions were on offer, first in California, and when that commute proved too long, to the East Coast. 

Living alone has given him an intimate sense of the business opportunities for companies smart enough to stay abreast of this demographic trend. "There are a lot of opportunities out there and I think a lot of businesses are responding," he said.

You don't have the benefit of division of labour, so a lot of people end up buying help.- Eddy Ng, business professor, Dalhousie University

"The big thing for me is shopping for one," Ng said. He's noticed that stores are now offering package sizes appropriate to single-person households, like a combo-pack of four different kinds of fruit. "A big bag of apples would take me a month to eat." 

People who live alone want to be able to buy things like smaller, more energy-efficient appliances, he said, and services that will make things easier around the house.

"You don't have the benefit of division of labour, so a lot of people end up buying help."

Service providers who offer things like snow clearing, housekeeping, home security and pet care can all capitalize on the boom in single-person households.

Ng also says the travel industry — typically priced based on double-occupancy — is beginning to adapt, offering pricing that's fairer for those vacationing alone.

Affordable housing

A big area of opportunity for business is in providing housing that's suitable for singles.

"One of the findings of this study is that people who live alone are more likely to have unaffordable shelter costs," said Galbraith.

The study says one in five people who live alone reside in condominiums. But given that 41 per cent of this cohort has monthly shelter costs higher than 30 per cent of their monthly income — a standard measure of affordability — it's clear the supply of housing has not kept pace with demand.

Galbraith also says service providers who support seniors to live alone for longer and out of retirement homes are likely to do brisk business.

In fact, the demand for more singles-focused services of all kinds is likely to increase.

"I would just reiterate that this is a population that's becoming more and more diverse over time," Galbraith said. "Their housing needs, their consumption needs, their preferences are going to become more and more varied."

About the Author

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in family life, health and the workplace. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.