It’s the biggest shopping day on the planet. Alibaba alone chalked up $38 billion in sales for 2019. No, it’s not a religious, patriotic holiday, or even the one time biggest online shopping day of the year, Black Friday – it’s Singles’ Day in China and much of the world. But what’s good for Alibaba, may not be good for your retirement and many industries.
Started as Bachelors Day by students at China’s Nanjing University in 1993 as a kind of ‘anti-Valentines’ day to celebrate being single, the day evolved into Singles’ Day. November 11 or 11/11 was chosen because it provided the powerful symbolism of four 1’s.
And, while the celebration of being single may have begun in China, the lifestyle and business of ‘singledom’ is spreading fast. Retailers in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America are all riding the singles wave. According to Forbes writer Sergei Klebnikov, Adobe projects that nearly 25% of retailers plan to offer a Singles Day special. Amazon, Apple, Bed Bath & Beyond, Estee Lauder, Foot Locker, Happy Socks and countless other retailers are all too happy to jump on the singles lifestyle bandwagon.
But, there is more to Singles’ Day then a retail push. Singlehood points to a larger disruptive demographic trend that is shaping lifestyles, your retirement, and the even the markets we invest in today.
According to Pew Research, 61% of young Americans under the age of 35 are without a partner. Up sharply from 33% in 2004. Likewise, the number of people living alone in Canada has doubled over the last three decades. In Europe more than half of the households in Paris, Munich, and Oslo are households of one. Entire nations, such as Sweden and Denmark have more than half of their populations living alone.
So what might this new demographic landscape mean for lifestyles, retirement, and countless industries?
To continue the theme of Singles’ Day on 11/11, here are 11 questions about life tomorrow in a world of one.
1. Who will buy the homes of retirees today that are typically two, three or more bedrooms? Will homes with one bedroom become the new normal and homes with two bedrooms be considered a spatial luxury – and those with three-plus simply a waste? How might real estate developers rethink communities that are predominantly households of one?
2. How many wine glasses will you buy? Watch out household goods industry, rather, than buying a set of eight, or even four glasses, as well as all the other things that stock household cabinets and closets – we may buy only one or two of what we need. For those retirees thinking they are going to downsize by handing off that china set with service for 12 to their kids – good luck. As I observe in a previous article, no one wants your stuff.
3. Who will you buy luxury gifts for? Singles’ Day certainly shows that people are willing to buy things, but will they buy luxury? Will luxury brands begin crafting a new vision of the virtue of treating yourself in contrast to decades of sales based upon treating that special someone as well as marking engagements and anniversaries? Perhaps a whole new socially acceptable celebration of buying your own watch for your retirement will become a new normal.
4. Is a party of one the new normal for leisure? Will restaurants work harder to make a retired single more comfortable and not feel alone? Hotels, cruise ships, and theme parks have traditionally marketed to couples and families. What will leisure look like in a world of one?
5. Will being a pet parent mean more than ever? If a partner is not moving in, will pets become your significant other in youth and later life, thereby getting an even bigger boost of wallet share?
6. How will you share the burden? Managing a household has many moving parts. Typically tasks are split between a couple by conscious decision and often by default. Will retired singles over time learn to do it all, or will there be a growth industry for services once shared with that special someone?
7. Will there be even fewer children? The birthrate continues to tumble. The industrialized world, as well as many industrializing nations, are seeing a record drop in the number of children being born each year. Will the celebration of one, mean none?
8. Does singlehood provide greater career freedom? If there is only one person in a household, does that reduce the fear of losing a job or easily moving from one position that does not quite fit? Employers may find a new mobility in single employees who do not need to worry, nor manage, the financial risks of supporting multi-person household. However, will that newfound freedom in youth, present a longer-term financial risk in retirement for singles?
9. How will you finance retirement alone? Having a partner may increase household consumption and costs – but it may also provide more income and retirement savings. The longevity risk of ones life span outliving ones wealth span may be greater for lifelong singles.
10. Who will care for you? Most of us, at some point, will require care in older age. A partner, or adult child, typically provides family care to an elderly loved one. In a world where neither may exist, does that present a new challenge for individuals planning retirement – and perhaps a new demand for private and public services?
11. Does alone necessarily mean lonely? While it is possible to be alone, but not lonely, will a society with a growing number of households of one portend an even greater rise in the global epidemic of loneliness and social isolation for young and old alike?
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I lead the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab (agelab.mit.edu). Researcher, teacher, speaker and advisor – my work explores how global demographics, technology and changing generational attitudes are transforming business and society. I teach in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Sloan School’s Advanced Management Program. My new book is The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017) . Follow me on Twitter @josephcoughlin.