Highlights: In 1960, just 13 percent of American households had a single occupant. But that figure has risen steadily, and today it is approaching 30 percent. For households headed by someone 50 or older, that figure is 36 percent.
But while many people in their 50s and 60s thrive living solo, research is unequivocal that people aging alone experience worse physical and mental health outcomes and shorter life spans.
And even with an active social and family life, people in this group are generally more lonely than those who live with others, according to Dr. Schafer’s research.
In many ways, the nation’s housing stock has grown out of sync with these shifting demographics. Many solo adults live in homes with at least three bedrooms, census data shows, but find that downsizing is not easy because of a shortage of smaller homes in their towns and neighborhoods.
Several Gen X solo dwellers said they had begun exploring options to live communally as they age, inspired, in part, by living arrangements they had enjoyed in college years and young adulthood.
Living solo in homes with three or more bedrooms sounds like a luxury but, experts said, it is a trend driven less by personal choice than by the nation’s limited housing supply. Because of zoning and construction limitations in many cities and towns, there is a nationwide shortage of homes below 1,400 square feet, which has driven up the cost of the smaller units that do exist, according to research from Freddie Mac.
Forty years ago, units of less than 1,400 square feet made up about 40 percent of all new home construction; today, just 7 percent of new builds are smaller homes, despite the fact that the number of single-person households has surged.
This has made it more difficult for older Americans to downsize, as a large, aging house can often command less than what a single adult needs to establish a new, smaller home and pay for their living and health care expenses in retirement.
People in this group often face the reality that “it’s more expensive to get a smaller condo than the single family you’re selling — and that presumes the condo exists, which may not be the case,” said Jennifer Molinsky, director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at Harvard University.
And when they hold onto family-size houses well into retirement, there are fewer spacious homes placed on the market for young families, who in turn squeeze into smaller units or withstand long commutes in a search for affordable housing.
“Both ends of the age distribution are getting squeezed,” said Jenny Schuetz, an expert on housing and urban economics at the Brookings Institution.
The constraints are especially severe for many older Black Americans, for whom the legacy of redlining and segregation has meant that homeownership has not generated as much wealth. The percentage of people living alone in large houses is highest in many low-income, historically Black neighborhoods. In those areas, many homes are owned by single, older women.