Living alone - the rise of the Lone Ranger

Nearly a quarter of New Zealand households are made up of a single person.
Alistair Hughes

Nearly a quarter of New Zealand households are made up of a single person.

Wandering around your digs naked as a jaybird is a totally underrated experience. So says Erin Driessen, one of the rising number of solo dwellers in New Zealand.

The freedom to hang out in your birthday suit, adorn the walls with your own taste in art, leave the loo seat up, down (off?) - the advantages of living alone are endless.

Almost one in four New Zealanders live alone now. But it is not just our ageing baby boomer population responsible for the rise of the Lone Ranger.

The concept is fast becoming a choice by younger people encouraged by the rise in apartment living as well as a cultural change where people feel less pressure to get married and settle down. The prohibitive housing market is also responsible for keeping renters renting but ditching the flatmates. 

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Erin Driessen, pictured in her Newtown apartment, chose to live solo to explore what a major change in her life meant.

Erin Driessen, pictured in her Newtown apartment, chose to live solo to explore what a major change in her life meant.

To be a Lone Ranger these days is an enviable label. Living on your todd is no longer seen as hermit-like or desperate. It is now a social norm, a mark of independence on the emotional and financial fronts.

Professor Paul Spoonley, pro vice-chancellor college of humanities and social sciences at Massey University, says  the "living alone" phenomena is apparent at two life stages;  the growing number of older New Zealanders who have lost their partner, mainly through death, and are living longer and longer independently, and the growing gap between when younger Kiwis leave their home to study or work and when they settle down with a partner or establish a home.

"The latter tends now to occur in the early or even mid-thirties. In this period, they might live alone, especially in downtown apartments as either owners or renters."

What we have seen over recent decades is the growing diversity of household types in New Zealand, echoing international trends, says Spoonley, who has carried out research on New Zealand's demography.

This is a result of many different factors: dissolved or reconstituted families, immigration and ethnic diversity; the delay in setting up homes and partnerships; the ageing of the population.

"New Zealand has become a very different country – and how we live is a reflection of this.

"The increase in people living alone is a global phenomenon. Research published last year showed one-person households were the fastest growing households in many regions of the world. Scandinavia and Europe lead the way but Asia is catching up.

In his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, New York sociologist Eric Klinenberg says that if we can afford to live alone, then we do, seeing it as a mark of distinction, not a social failure.  

From more than 300 interviews with solo dwellers, Klinenberg found that whether in their 20s or 80s, folks living alone were deeply engaged in social and civic life. Solo dwellers enjoy better mental health and have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles, he writes.

Erin Driessen, 31, a public servant from Wellington, has been living alone for two years.

I left a heterosexual relationship of nine years in Dunedin when I came out two years ago.

I moved to Wellington for a fresh start. I have a good job, earn good money, and I was not ready for the responsibility of home-ownership but I still wanted to try living alone. I needed time by myself to explore what my new life meant.

I wanted to be right in town so I rented a bedsit in Cuba St. It sounds a bit sad and desperate but it was a choice I made and I have no regrets.

When I needed my own space I had it. When I wanted company, I sought it out. But it was all on my own terms. After eight months in the centre of town I moved to an apartment in Newtown with a bit more room.

Whenever I get sad or weird or lonely, I go out and celebrate my new life. I go to a cafe or a bar and watch the world go by and remember why I chose to live alone.

I have no obligation to cook or clean as a flatmate. There's less clutter. I can hang whatever I like on the walls. I have complete control over the space I live in.

If I want people over, I don't have to check with anyone else. If I want people to come and stay, they won't be a burden on a flatmate.

Sure, I have to pay all the rent - $380 per week - but I pay less for power and food because I have complete control over what I eat and use in electricity.

My friends are really jealous of my solo living situation.

We have all done communal living during our university days. We have all lived in flats because we couldn't afford to live any other way. But now we have grown up and we have choices.

I started living alone at a really important time of my life and two years on I feel so completely myself because I have had the space to explore who I am.

Saturdays are sacrosanct. My job is people, people, people all day long so I like to take at least half of Saturday at home by myself. I have coffee, I play music - what I like, as loud as I like.

If I want to spend all day baking in the kitchen making a mess, I can. Walking around naked is a massive one for me. Living alone I can do that without a second thought.

I leave for work and know I'm going to come home and find my apartment just the way I left it. And if I've left laundry on the sofa or dishes in the sink, that's OK. It's not going to bother anyone else.

I guess the time I miss a flatmate is when I want to chill out on the sofa and have a chat or if I've had a rough day and need someone to unload on. But I try and embrace my loneliness when it creeps in. I don't think being lonely is inherently bad.

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Emma Hart, 43, a former journalist, heads her own global media training company and runs Scandinavian retro furniture importing business, Skandi. She lives in Island Bay, Wellington.

Why does one "settle" and why is it "down"?

This goes against the grain of how I have lived my life.

After building a career in TV, I forged a successful media coaching business in London. Now, when almost all of my friends are married with kids, I split my life between New Zealand, where I have a furniture business, and the UK where I run a global media company.

To have this life I play a strategic game of snakes and ladders. As a journalist this meant moving almost every year. I often lived in small boho places on my own.  New city, new friends, always the new person at the party.

Later in Europe I found solace in returning to a calm and beautiful home in the Lake District after a gruelling day with a company head in crisis.

Friends I have lived with in the past will testify to how much I needed to retreat, to find my equilibrium and to download the day.

Hell, in Victorian times women would "retire to the drawing room". Now we pay $25 to connect with ourselves and 55 others at hot yoga.

I make no apology for being one of those souls who needs space to download, reload and figure out how I actually feel about stuff.

For me it is not a matter of living alone. It's more a matter of not living with the wrong person and finding the right one who makes you more than yourself in every way.

Maybe in my case that is a monster ask. I work 20 weeks of the year anywhere from the UK to Moscow training CEOs and public figures how to handle high level interviews.

For most guys it's a case of, "when are you going to settle down, calm down, slow down?" I am still sure the right person will get it and we will be able to create a most fabulous "up" life together.

I have full and exhilarating lives in both hemispheres. I always thought that would be attractive to a fella. What I have learnt is that if you run outside the box the majority of men don't know how to handle you or where you fit.

I know you can choose to live alone and have a full dance card.

Bridget Jones did us no favours in that regard. Chocolate-eating pyjama-wearing women looking for love later in life, seriously?

Thanks for nothing Jones.

I am not floundering. I don't choose to live alone but I choose to live the life I have created. And I am sure I will cross paths with my Mr Right at some point.

I would not have wanted to live with me in my 20s and 30s. I was too ambitious, stubborn, life curious.

But it's simplistic to dismiss the real reasons for living alone on one's single-minded pursuit of a career or being just too interested in the world.

I was raised by my Dad. He was an artist and spent most of his time in his studio. I learnt to be self-reliant and, like him, happily disappear into creative endeavours. I am good in my own company, even though I am hugely social now as an adult.

Emma Hart's Island Bay home is stylish proof that the stereotypical musty bedsit is a long way from the reality for many solo-dwellers.

Financial independence has allowed me to live alone.

At 20, when most of my friends were studying and shagging, I was learning how to build spec houses in the eastern Bay of Plenty. My godmother said "Your financial independence has got nothing to do with anyone else. I will show you how to build a house and sell it."

She and her family enabled me to stand up financially early in life. Because of her I have always owned my own houses.

At home I eat simply and beautifully as an aspiring vegan. There is no set routine with food but I am a demon cook and happy to create feasts for one just as I would when I have mates around.

As for the decor, any minimalist would have a meltdown in my bijou abode. I am a collector of beautiful things, in objects, life and experiences - with or without a wingman.

Do I get lonely? Yes of course. It is not a longing to share domestic duties but more a desire to collaborate on the cool stuff. 

I am not sure that loneliness is always cured by another. That hasn't been my experience.

Keith Lynch, 34, chief news director of Stuff, lives on his own in central Wellington.

Living alone means total freedom to me.

My one-bedroom apartment right in the heart of Wellington is a far cry from the three-bedroom house I had in Christchurch where I lived before I came up here, but it suits my life right now.

I have lived with girlfriends in the past and I had a great time flatting with mates in Galway, in Ireland where I'm from. When I came out of university and lived with friends I'd be up all night at the pub, playing video games, watching sport. But when you get a bit older you have more pressures in your working life and you need a bit more space.

My job is quite high pressure and I don't want to have to worry about the dirty dishes or loud music or people watching TV programmes I don't like. I like my place tidy and clean. I expend a lot of energy at work. I talk to people all day long so I love having my own place to recharge.

I guess I'm quite selfish in my own space. I think having flatmates at this stage in my life would really cramp my lifestyle. My apartment is like a retreat. It's a place where I don't have any worries, where I can do whatever I want.

I still go out. I'm very social. I like company but on my own terms.

I rent my apartment and it's not cheap. If I lived with people I would have a lot more disposable income but I feel like your personal space and living conditions are incredibly important to your wellbeing so I'm happy to pay the extra.

I like to cook. I always make meals from scratch and I prepare several meals for the week ahead in one go. It's nice to cook in your own space when you can take your time without worrying about someone else needing to use the kitchen. I like to eat sitting at the table reading the news online rather than sit in front of the TV.

"When you get a bit older you have more pressures in your working life and you need a bit more space."

The only time I have even a hint of loneliness is on a quiet Sunday when the weather is bad and I'm stuck inside. I don't think that's a product of living alone, though, it's just a time when there's not much happening.

I would like to live with someone again at some stage but that would be with a girlfriend not a flatmate.

Right now, though, I am sticking with solo living. It's total freedom.

I never feel it more acutely than when I come home on a Friday night after being out with friends at the pub and I've just had enough of the day, and I know I can come home, sit on the sofa, watch TV, fall asleep and know no one is going to wake me or bother me. I can get up when I like. Do what I like.

Brooklyn Ley, development coordinator at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, 31, lives in a bedsit in Wellington's Mt Victoria.

I have never been flatting and never lived alone till now. I lived at home with my parents before moving out to New Zealand from Adelaide last November for my job. I'm still getting used to coming home to an empty house.

But all the things that could be sad and scary about living alone are also the appealing factors.

There are times at the end of the weekend when I realise I have not spoken a word to anyone. There are times I look around and think it would be nice to see another human. But I'm enjoying this "me" time. I like my own company. I have never been someone who goes out a lot. I've never been one to have a big group of friends. I choose quality over quantity. I have always been a Lone Ranger.

I can understand why my lifestyle could be really depressing and devastating for some but I like it. I like going home, putting on my pyjamas and having quiet time. I make up my own rules. I can cook what I like, watch what I like on TV. My guilty pleasure is to come home and watch Home and Away and Neighbours. They're my link to home.

Living solo, I've discovered that I enjoy cooking. It's amazing what you can pick up from watching MasterChef. I'm not making croquembouche quite yet but it's good to know I can cook something edible. I eat standing up at the kitchenette or in front of TV.

It's a world away from my family home where we all had our own particular place to sit at the table. I miss that.

I lived at home to save for a house deposit but I never considered living with flatmates. I am a very solitary person. When I'm at work I am always talking to people. When I go home to my "Brook-cave" I just want to relax.

I'm enjoying living on my own terms. The only thing I have to share is the laundry and even that's too much sharing for me.

When I was still living with my parents everyone told me "you have to move out". But I never wanted to rent somewhere because I felt that money was just going nowhere, whereas paying board at home, at least my mum was getting something out of it.

Plus my dinner was cooked each night and my laundry always done. There were many advantages to living at home.

I still speak with my parents every day. It's like I've never left home, really

I have not made any many close friends here yet. I don't want to get too close to anyone because when I go I'll only have to leave them behind. I have deliberately cut myself off a bit.

There is the odd moment when I feel a little lonely. There are some days when I have a cry in bed. That's when I'll say to myself "stop feeling sorry for yourself and get out into the city. See something. Do something."


* In the past five censuses the number of one-person households has consistently risen from  235,986, to 355,242.

* One-person households made up 23.5 per cent of New Zealand households in 2013. Of a total of 355,242 solo households, 71,385 were aged between 15-44.

* The West Coast region had the highest percentage of one-person households, at 30.7 per cent, followed by the Manawatu-Wanganui region, at 28.2 per cent.

* The Auckland region had the lowest proportion of one-person households, at 19.0 per cent.

* Women were more likely than men to live in one-person households, with women making up 57.4 per cent of one-person households.

* Most people (79.9 per cent) in one-person households were aged 45 years and over.

* Of people in one-person households; 2.9 per cent were aged under 25 years; 17.2 per cent were aged 25–44 years; 35.6 per cent were aged 45–64 years; 44.3 per cent were aged 65 years and over.

* More younger men than younger women live alone. Of people who live alone, men make up 57.1 per cent of the under-25 age group, and 58.0 per cent of the 25–44 age group.

Source: Statistics New Zealand from 2013 census.


* According to the latest statistics, in many economically advanced countries such as Norway, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany, more than one-third of households contained only one person at the end of the last decade.

* By 2020, Euromonitor International predicts, almost half of households in Sweden will contain only one person. Globally, the number of one person households has risen by 30 per cent over the last 10 years.

* Euromonitor estimates that, by 2020, four out of the top 10 countries with the highest number of one-person households will be in Asia, with China and India leading the trend.

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