Finland has a population of about 5.4 million. The US population is about 317 million. Yet at the end of September, Finland hosted an event that, so far as I know, the US has never had: a day-long conference on the topic of single people living alone.
The event was described as an Education Day, and people came from around the country, and from other countries, too, to Turku to attend. The Association for People Who Live Alone in Finland spearheaded the event, worked to find funding, and did the organizing and publicizing. (I’ll tell you more about the Association in another post I’m working on, about singles organizations around the world.) I gave two talks (and one the day before at a university) and Arja Makinen from Helsinki and Raija Eeva from Turku also spoke. Finnish and Swedish media wrote about it.
In the US, about 27% of households are comprised of people living alone. That’s about 33 million people. But as Eric Klinenberg pointed out in Going Solo, proportionately, single-person households are more commonplace elsewhere. In Finland, as well as in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, at least 40% of all households are 1-person households. Other countries also have higher proportions of 1-person households than the US does, including Germany, France, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
One of the things I loved about Education Day in Finland was the diversity of people who attended. In addition to the usual suspects (students, researchers, teachers), there were also social workers, deacons, lawyers, city planners, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and people from political parties – especially the groups within them interested in women and youth. I hope we can do something like this in the US sometime soon.
The questions asked by the audience members had an international flavor. One person, for example, asked about the implications of immigration for the place of single people and people living alone in America. Another asked about how politicians view and treat single people.
The day before the event, and the day after, I was asked a question that I had never been asked in the 15 or more years that I have been speaking and writing about single people. Why, the first person asked, was I talking about happiness? So what if single people become no happier in the long run if they get married?
I have to admit I was a bit startled by the question. In the US, happiness is a bit of a national obsession. At first, I tried to brush off the question with that answer (it was an informal conversation, not part of the question-and-answer period). But the person asking was having none of it. She really wanted to know what the point was of bothering to address a question like that.
Her concern was with single people who are poor, and she thinks that we should all focus on them. I had discussed vulnerable single people in my talk, and I had also described ways in which all single people are vulnerable economically (for example, because they have, at most, just one salary and no salary or benefits from a spouse that they could fall back on) even if they are resilient psychologically. I thought that was sufficient, but she seemed almost angry with me for spending any time at all on the happiness issue.
The second person who asked came at it from a different angle. She had read Singled Out and was generally very enthusiastic about it, but she also had a complaint. She thought my book spoke to single people who are happily single, and not to people such as herself, who did not want to be single.
I offered a thought experiment: Think about all of the zillions of people who write for and about single people who want to become coupled. Does anyone ever take them to task for not standing up for, or even acknowledging, the single people who want to be single?
In my talks, I had described research showing that single people who say they are happy, and single people who choose to be single, are treated harshly by other people. Others refuse to believe them when they say they are happy and they actually express more anger at single people who say they choose to be single than at single people who want to be coupled. And now here was someone exasperated at me for even discussing the topic of single people’s happiness, and another who wanted me to pay more attention to single people who want to be coupled.
Next time, I guess I will be more prepared for those kinds of questions.
During my brief stay, I was interested in learning more about how single people live in Finland. Four people graciously invited me into their homes (and one made me reindeer cheese soup – delicious!). A retired military man showed me his 651-square-foot apartment. He told me that was a big space for a single person – the more typical size, he said, was about 431 square feet. I saw one that was 335 square feet; the owner had no complaints, and mentioned that in Helsinki, the apartments are often smaller than that.
My time was adorned with many acts of kindness, from the people who showed me around Turku to those who welcomed me into their homes. An attendee from another country, knowing that I could not get phone or internet service on any of my devices, left her laptop outside the door of my hotel room for me to use. Another time, as I was sitting near a lobby talking to another person for a while, someone from the hotel brought us a tray of coffee, tea, fruit, and cookies. (And no bill.) Can you imagine anything like that ever happening in the US? (Well, maybe in a B & B.)
If you are reading this in Finland, thank you for your hospitality. As for my fellow Americans, I think we need our own national and international conference on people who are single.
Helsinki Cathedral image available from Shutterstock.