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The single society: In some towns in Finland, one-person households are now a majority

There is a growing number of single-person households in Helsinki, Turku and Tampere.

Nuori nainen Ina Virtanen sytyttää peilin edessä kynttilöitä.
Ina Virtanen is happy living alone. Image: Dani Branthin / Yle

Ina Virtanen is an only child. She was born in Pori and moved to Turku to study and work there. Now aged 30, she has lived alone for a decade.

"I like it on my own, but on the other hand I am quite sociable," says Virtanen. "I don’t spend much time at home. But when I do come home, I like to have some peace and quiet alone."

Virtanen’s friends have started serious relationships, and many of them have moved in with their partners. She has faith that she would have people to help out if, for example, she broke her leg or suffered an illness.

"My own parents can help and I have a wide circle of friends in Turku," says Virtanen.

44 percent of households are single

The main reason people are now more likely to live alone is likely to be that they can now afford it. The change has happened quickly.

In 2018 there were 1.2 million single households in Finland, representing some 44 percent of all households. In 1985 the figure was just 28 percent.

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One person households by municipality
Image: Eetu Pietarinen / Yle

Finland is well above average in Europe, as in 2016 the number for the whole of the EU was 32.5 percent.

In absolute terms, single households are most numerous in Helsinki, Turku and Tampere. Last year there were 163,000 one-person households in Helsinki, 66,000 in Tampere and 55,740 in Turku.

The same phenomenon is evident in other high-income countries. In Sweden and the Netherlands the number of single households has risen even quicker than it has in Finland. In Sweden those living alone are now a majority.

In Finland, Turku and Tampere also have single-household percentages above 50, along with eight other Finnish municipalities both big and small.

The biggest rise in single-household living has been among women. They live longer than men, and 75 percent of women aged over 75 live alone.

Men at risk of marginalisation

Social policy professor Heikki Hiilamo produced a report for the last government on people living alone.

The report found that those living in single-person households were more likely to be living on basic income support.

Men are more likely to be marginalised by living alone, according to Hiilamo.

"For men, the situation is often that they don’t find a partner and are at risk of marginalisation in middle age," says Hiilamo. "For women, typically their partner dies and they live their last years alone."

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The number of single households in Finland has increased.

Soon after Hiilamo’s report came out the government resigned, and the topic did not re-appear on the government’s agenda.

Before the elections there was talk of young families, students and pensioners’ incomes. Policy has a significant impact on how people organise their lives, and one concrete example is the Finnish system of housing benefit, which helps many people pay their rent.

"Many aspects of our social security system support living alone," says Hiilamo. "An 18-year-old can move out and live on his or her own using housing benefits."

No more spinster tax

Policy has historically worked in the opposite direction. From the 1930s until 1975, a spinster tax was collected in different forms, with unmarried women taxed the most, childless couples the second-highest amount and families with children taxed the least.

Those living alone became liable for the tax the day they turned 24, and were thus encouraged to get married, move in with a spouse and make babies.

Hiilamo emphasises that the Nordic model of social welfare is based on individual, not family benefits.

Taxation is also individual, so a spouse’s income does not affect an individual’s tax rate.

Finland is now afflicted by falling birth rates, which have drawn a lot of attention from politicians who have suggested ways to support families.

The growing number of single people, on the other hand, has not. The Minister for Equality Thomas Blomqvist says there are currently no initiatives on improving things for single people.

More common spaces

Virtanen does not demand lobby groups or parties to advance the cause of single people. She is happy with her own life situation.

"Things are good in Finland," says Virtanen. "Prices in Turku are lower than in the capital city region and one person has the chance to buy or rent a studio or even a one-bedroom apartment."

In practice, widows, urban singles and farmers living alone have little in common.

Single-living is in any case a topic that will soon have to be taken into account. People’s life expectancy is increasing, and they are likely to suffer more illnesses and need more help in old age.

Hiilamo suggests changes to planning that could help single households.

"There’s a need for more apartment buildings where there are for example common spaces," says Hiilamo. "A person living alone is not necessarily lonely, but when you live alone there is more interest in social contact."

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