National Records of Scotland

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One Person Households

One Person Households

Census Results 1981-2001

  • Over the same period Ireland experienced an increase from 17% to 22%.

  • The number of divorces in Scotland in 2001 (Figure 4) (13 KB PDF) was slightly higher than in 1981, but almost 3 times higher than in 1952.

  • The most marked increase in one-person households between 1981 and 2001 was observed amongst men aged 35-44 (up from 9% to 20%) and women aged 25-34 (up from 3% to 10%).

  • The most marked decrease in one-person households was observed amongst those who were above pensionable age but below the age of 74 (down from 41% to 25% for men and from 79% to 61% for women).

One of the two most significant changes in household composition across the UK and in Ireland over the last 20 years has been the rapid expansion of one-person households (Figure 3) (11 KB PDF)[footnote 1]).

The chart shows that all parts of the UK and Ireland witnessed an increase in one-person households as a proportion of all households. In Scotland, this increase was above average, and in Ireland it was below average. To understand this trend, the composition of one-person households in Scotland was further examined using Scottish Census records. The main results of this analysis in conjunction with proposed explanations of these differences are given in later sections of this paper.

The number of people of retirement age and above is increasing. As a result, so has the number of one-person households for this age group. However, there has been a drop in the proportion of one-person households for this age group - so increased longevity only partially explains the increased number of one-person households.

One Person Households by Age and Sex

One suggested reason for the observed increase in one-person households is the increased divorce rate - from 2 in every 17 marriages in 1971 to 1 in every 2 marriages in 2001 (Scottish Government, 2001). The number of divorces in Scotland in 2001 was more than 3 times the number in 1952 Figure 4 (13 KB PDF).

It has been proposed (McFalls Jr, 2003) that this trend, in conjunction with the high proportion of children who go to live with their divorced mother (90% of all one parent households have a female household head), has resulted in many men leaving the family home and setting up on their own. Whilst it is difficult to determine whether this is the case, the household composition by age tables in the Scottish Census results for 1981 and 2001 were compared to examine which age group for each sex had primarily caused the observed increase in one-person households. The results of this investigation can be seen in Figure 5 (11 KB PDF).

The number of one person households almost doubled between 1981 and 2001, from 393,000 to 721,000, with numbers increasing in every age group. Figure 5 (11 KB PDF) shows the proportion of one person household by age group for both males and females in both these years. The greatest increase in the proportion of one-person households was found amongst women aged 25-34 and men aged 35-44. Explanations for the increase amongst women aged 25-34 include more young women opting for a career prior to settling down and having children whilst the increase in men aged 35-44 may be due to divorce.

Figure 6 (11 KB PDF) shows the percentage of one-person households by age group in Ireland over time. Though there was a smaller rise in one-person households in Ireland than Scotland, the trends by age group are similar to those in Scotland - for example, the fall in the percentage of one-person households occupied by a young male. However, the increase in one-person households, especially those occupied by women aged 45 to pensionable age has not been observed in Ireland. This difference might be because divorce was not legal in Ireland until the introduction of the Divorce Ireland Act in 1996, or because people in Ireland largely hold more traditional views on marriage, abortion, contraception and divorce. Whatever the reason, the average household size in Ireland is approximately 3 and it remains among the highest in Europe.

Clarke and Henwood (1997) suggest that the dramatic increase in the prevalence of single person households - one of the most significant changes in Scotland’s household composition - is a result of policy changes on a variety of issues over the last 30 years. However,  the commonly expressed view that this is caused by the young having greater freedom, economic resources and less commitment, so allowing them to set up on their own, may be a fallacy. Some interpretations of the evidence suggest the exact opposite: young people are remaining in the parental home longer due to their inability to afford to set up on their own in conjunction with their desire to 'have a life' before marriage and family (Lewis 2001; Scott 1999).


1. 1981 Northen Ireland household composition data was inconsistent with the rest of the UK and Ireland and so is not included in Figure 3 (11 KB PDF)

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