In his book Future Files, Richard Watson predicts that increasing numbers of people will live alone during the 21st century. And the statistics back up this claim. A third of middle-aged Americans are heading towards retirement as singles and, according to Watson, 40% of British homes will be “under single occupancy” by 2020. There has also been an increase in the numbers of single and childless individuals. In 1950, for example, 80% of American households consisted of the traditional husband, wife, and child. Now it is 49%. In the UK, 22% of women say they do not intend to have children, and this figure looks set to increase. As Watson writes, “we are increasingly leading separate lives, and in the future it will become much easier to isolate ourselves…”
Problems and Fears
Even those who choose to remain single and childless must face certain problems and fears. For a start, there is the attitude of neighbors and friends. This can range from pity and condescension to disapproval and outright contempt. Many regard the single and childless as failures, even victims, and assume they must be lonely and depressed. Others consider them selfish and shallow. Raising children can be stressful, exhausting and expensive. It often means giving up careers, hobbies and creative pursuits. When such people then see a childless friend dating, having fun, forging ahead in her career, and so on, they can grow resentful and jealous.
For most childless singles, especially those with few close friends and no extended family, their deepest fear is enduring a serious illness alone. Who will drive me to the hospital, they wonder? Who will hold my hand in the waiting room when I am scared? These are perfectly understandable fears and, though people may deny it, avoiding such a fate is a major motivation for having children.
More generally, there is the sense of being an outsider. For example, objections are often raised when childless people run for public office, as though only those with children have a stake in the future of their society. Parents tend to talk and think about their children more than almost anything and will often talk about them at work or dinner parties. When everyone else then brings out their photographs, or swaps anecdotes about the highs and lows of parenthood, the childless inevitably feel left out. When such people are also single, this sense of not being a full member of society is only reinforced.
Of course, children are no guarantee of a happy and secure old age. On the contrary, for some people their children are a source of stress and worry rather than comfort and love. Life is unpredictable, and many receive little support in later life from their children. Some become estranged because they cannot bear their child’s partner, for example. In other cases, their child marries someone from another country and moves away. Then there are those whose children become addicts or suffer some form of mental or physical illness.
First, it is vital to take care of your physical health. This is the foundation on which everything rests, including your mental health. Obviously, you want to remain sharp, independent and self-sufficient, ideally right to the very end. So make a point of taking extreme care of your health. The old cliché of treating your body like a temple is a good one. Be conscious of every piece of food and drink you put in your mouth. And get reading. The Age Revolution, by Dr Charles Clark and How Not to Die, by Dr Michael Greger would be a good start.
Clark’s book focusses on the ageing process itself and how to slow it down. His advice includes avoiding sugar and refined carbs, reducing inflammation, making your exercise and meals regular (“the body loves routine,” as Clark puts it) and so on. He also makes the rather cheering point that the vast majority of illness and infirmity associated with old age is in fact self-inflicted and results from not eating properly and not taking enough exercise. As he writes, “Most of the processes of ageing are actually a result of the way we live and are not inevitable.” Greger, on the other hand, looks at the most common causes of death and suggests ways of avoiding them. Both emphasize diet. Greger, for example, lists the superfoods he believes may keep many of the common killers at bay, in particular things like flaxseed, turmeric, garlic, fish oil, and raw mushrooms.
Of course, being single and childless has enormous benefits as well, especially if you make the effort to connect with others. For example, you are free to travel. If you do, try and really embrace the journey: throw yourself into the experience, chatting to everyone, accepting invitations etc. Volunteering can be especially rewarding. You could volunteer to help build schools or hospitals in Africa, or help with an immunization project in Nepal, and so on. Not only will you make friends from all over the world, you will feel a real sense of achievement.
You are also free to pursue a career and enjoy your money. And in particular, you are free to explore new hobbies. Best of all, you can now devote huge amounts of time to creative pursuits. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? Writing a novel, for example, or playing the piano?
Single, childless people, no matter how happy and fulfilling their life may be, inevitably wonder what will happen when they grow old. If you do not have children or a partner, at some point you are going to need people you can rely on. The author Marianne Kilkenny, herself a childless 60-something, promotes what she describes as “ageing in the community,” advising people to establish communities in which they have their own home but get together regularly for meals, gardening, yoga, and exercise. Consider planning towards such a community with people you know. If you are in your early 50s, for example, try establishing friendships with as many other single, childless 50 and 60-somethings as you can. See if you can identify two or three you could form such a community with and then float the idea and see what response you get.
If you prize your independence too highly, however, consider where you live now. How would you fare should you reach extreme old age and be unable to go shopping or take care of your finances? Could you re-establish relations with a sibling, for example, or a childhood friend? Could you deepen your bond with a niece or nephew?
Of course, this all assumes that being single, childless, and old will always be the same experience. Almost certainly it will not. Ageing itself will soon be a very different thing. Of course, there have always been pseudo-scientists promising an end to ageing, cures for all disease, even immortality. Because of such people, and because medicine has, until recently, been largely ineffective, there is a tendency to dismiss such promises out of hand. Even today, journalists write of those trying to slow or reverse ageing with the sort of contempt normally used for those trying to contact aliens or discover Atlantis!
And yet almost every expert, even the most sober and skeptical, accepts that we will soon find ways to slow the ageing process down. They may disagree about when or how this will be achieved, but almost everyone accepts that in principle it is possible. For example, Yuval Harari, a highly respected Israeli historian, graduate of Oxford University and mainstream academic, recently published Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in which he takes it for granted that we will extend the lifespan considerably. So does Michael Bess, a Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, in his book Superhumans.
Even the comedian and actor Stephen Fry accepts that this is likely. What makes Fry worth quoting is that, aside from his dazzling intellect, he is an outspoken critic of pseudo-science. Yet, at the 2017 Hay-on-Wye literary festival, he gave a talk in which he said, “the younger people in this room can certainly expect to break the 120 barrier. I have been told by more than one solemn-faced scientist that the first person to live to 1,000 is probably alive and that immortality is technically and feasibly within reach.”
Such things are worth stressing because so many childless, single people dread the onset of old age, afraid that they will find themselves immobile, isolated, and in chronic pain, with no one who cares, no one to comfort them. In fact, so much research is currently going on, and in so many different fields, from medical nanotech to genomics to stem cells, that growing old will soon be a very different thing.
Along with medical progress, other advances will also make a single and childless life quite different. For example, neuroscience is progressing at astonishing speed. According to the physicist Michio Kaku, we have learnt more about the brain in last two decades than in the whole of human history. Thanks to this, a new generation of lifestyle drugs will raise I.Q., increase creativity, and allow us to control and improve mood in ways we can barely imagine. In his book The Neuro Revolution, Zack Lynch argues that we will soon move into a “neurosociety” in which control and manipulation of the brain changes everything.
More generally, we will find new ways of enhancing and improving the human body. Professor Michael Bess argues that the 21st century will be “the age of bio-enhancement.” Virtual reality may also prove revolutionary, changing what it means to be alone. Indeed, Edward Castronova, a professor at Indiana University, predicts a sort of mass exodus into these virtual worlds. As he points out, when life in a virtual reality becomes not just indistinguishable from the real thing but more enjoyable, who is going to be want to remain here?
Of course, being single and childless can bring problems, as can any other lifestyle choice. But so long as you keep fit and healthy, fill your home with books, reach out to others, and take full advantage of emerging technologies, there is no reason why you can’t be happy and fulfilled as well.