New study shows solo households made up of 'successful women' and 'lonely men'

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Inga Ting and Eryk Bagshaw

"It's a real luxury": Communications manager Libby Conway lives in Woollahara and relishes the solo life.

"It's a real luxury": Communications manager Libby Conway lives in Woollahara and relishes the solo life. Photo: Michele Mossop

Young, successful and flying solo – that is the profile of a rising number of inner-Sydney women who live alone, according to research that has highlighted the widening social gap between solo men and women.

Women younger than 40 who live alone are 70 per cent more likely to have a university degree and 60 per cent more likely to have professional jobs than their male counterparts, a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows. Men who live alone are also far less likely to want to continue living solo.

This mismatch between the social status of men and women living by themselves is growing as a new cohort of younger, socially advantaged women join the ranks of Sydney's solo dwellers.

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In the affluent, inner-city suburbs of Elizabeth Bay, Rushcutters Bay and Potts Point, lone-person households dominate, making up nearly 60 per cent of households, compared with just 20 per cent across Sydney. 

Seven of the 20 suburbs with the largest share of lone-person households have median incomes of more than $100,000, compared to a Sydney median of less than $66,000.

While the elderly still make up the majority of lone dwellers, the "typical" lone-dweller younger than 60 can have a very different profile, depending on whether they are a man or a woman.

Women who live alone, particularly those younger than under 40, tend to be well-educated, have professional jobs and earn high incomes. By contrast, men who live alone, particularly middle-aged men, are less educated and earn lower incomes than other men. They are also twice as likely not to work at all.

"You have younger professionals, particularly professional women, living alone in the inner city, close to their jobs and where they socialise," David de Vaus, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, said. "But the living alone population is diverse ... and those not doing so well are less likely to live in clusters. They will be spread geographically."

In the inner city, lack of suitable housing for families – mostly too small or too expensive – and a "magnetising effect that attracts more of the same kind of people ... [means] you start to get concentrations of 'urban rich'," Mr de Vaus said. 

Among them is corporate communications manager Libby Conway, 38, who relishes the solo life. "You can have cake for breakfast if you want," the Woollahra resident said. "It is a real luxury to be able to do it. It is that sense of true freedom. The world is your oyster."

Ms Conway's floor in her apartment block is an embodiment of that inner-Sydney trend. She shares it with two other women in their 30s who also live alone. "You just get to a point where you want your own space," Ms Conway said.

The research doesn't show why people live alone and or whether those who do are in relationships. However, Mr de Vaus said it might be that affluent, well-educated women have more difficulty finding a partner who is comfortable with their success. 

On the other hand, the high rate of solo living among middle-aged men down on their luck is probably at least partly because they are seen as less-reliable breadwinners and, therefore, less-attractive partners.  

"Whether they don't want to be living with others or other people don't think much of them, we don't know ... [but] my take is that more men are living alone out of circumstance rather than choice," he said, citing forthcoming research that shows far more women than men want to continue living alone. 

Either way, the "growing mismatch" between the education, jobs and incomes of the men and women who lived alone would require a change in social attitudes, he said.

"The traditional pattern of women 'marrying up' to men with more education, better jobs, more money and so forth … that's not going to continue. Both men and women have to adapt to that."