Gunnar Andersson Foto: Eva Dalin
Gunnar Andersson. Photo: Eva Dalin/Stockholm University

Author: Gunnar Andersson There seems to be some curiosity outside Sweden over the statistics on single households in this country. Comparable statistics tend to suggest that Sweden is a country of lone wolves, with a lot of people living as singles in households of their own. The theme has also been on display in film, as in Erik Gandinis “The Swedish Theory of Love”. In December last year (2017), this reputation brought a team from the SAMSUNG Broadcasting Group of Korea to my office, with the purpose to find out what is going on here. The background is that in Korea, single households is an entirely new phenomenon.

Many people are concerned over the fact that young Koreans increasingly seem to remain single and opt out from marriage and parenthood. The question then is whether this is a similar development to what is observed in Sweden? And how can it be that there are so many single households in Sweden? The visit was quite welcome as it gave me the opportunity to confront some of the myths regarding Sweden as a champion in single living. The truth is that statistics on one-person households do not always relate to life styles linked to the status of being a single. Furthermore, single living is not an entirely new phenomenon in this country. And, a lot but not all of it refers to temporary spells of singlehood in two different phases of the life course: early adulthood and old age.

The first case is related to the fact that young Swedes more or less uniformly leave their parental home when aged 19-21. Instead of remaining as singles in their parental home they are expected to start a household and support themselves on their own. The design of Sweden’s social policies help making this an entirely realistic option. With the postponement of union formation and parenthood, the number of single households has indeed increased. But, what’s more important is that there has been no recent increases of the fractions that never form a union or become a parent. Many outside Sweden may also be surprised to learn that the fractions that marry have actually increased during the last few decades. As a matter of fact, many of the mechanisms that are at play in early adulthood in contemporary Sweden are very similar to those of family formation patterns in historical Sweden. Some people indeed remain single, but a non-negligible fraction of people in historical Sweden and North Western Europe also remained “single” in that they never married or became a parent.

The second development in relation to single households is due to the fact that people live longer and the fractions of elderly have increased: many of them live some time as widowers or widows. Still, some other developments are new and more related to situations that people would associate with true singlehood. As divorce levels have increased some people opt of unions formed in early adulthood and spend mid-life and later time as a single, sometimes in anticipation of entering a new union.

Still, my main impression is that many patterns related to singlehood, family formation, household composition and family dynamics that at first glance appear novel often are solidly anchored in long-standing patterns of Nordic family dynamics.

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