Living single goes far beyond Campbell's Soup-for-One. How single people approach and manage their life style, from choosing housing to how they use their free time, not only affects their personal lives but the public sector as well.
Because of their growing numbers and reputation for spendable income, singles have become increasingly important in the marketplace.
Manufacturers of cars, appliances, and other products, for example, are targeting the preferences and needs of single Americans. Small-scale appliances and mini-food items continue to appear on store shelves, and new service-oriented businesses are emerging to assist singles living alone.
But more significant has been the singles impact on housing. Cities such as New York are responding to the smaller space needs of one-person households with greater percentages of studio and one-bedroom units in new residential buildings.
Although single people tend to settle in urban areas, more are beginning to purchase homes in the suburbs. Singles compose the fastest growing segment of the real-estate industry, with single women the newest growth sector of the market. According to a survey by the National Association of Realtors, single women are purchasing more than 10 percent of all houses and one-third of all condominiums and apartments throughout the US.
How singles furnish their living quarters often has nothing to do with money, says J. L. Barkas, author of ''Single in America'' (New York: Atheneum). Single women she interviewed in the same apartment complex, for example, approached identical apartments in totally opposite ways: ''Some have a bed and nothing else. Some really make it look like a home.''
According to Miss Barkas, ambivalence about whether a situation is temporary or permanent can hold a single person back from establishing a comfortable home. She says it's often helpful for singles to ask themselves, ''Am I making the most of my situation now?''
''The most important thing is not postponing what you would want with someone else, just because you have not found that someone,'' she says.
Census Bureau figures show that of the approximately 56 million single adults in America today, more than two-thirds do not live alone. For some it is a happy choice; for others it is simply an economic imperative.
In terms of housing, a certain degree of financial security is requisite, especially if the person decides not to pool resources with a roommate.
''Privacy has its costs,'' says Peter Ogle, who pays $425 rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, Calif. ''People really have to want to live alone to pay the price.''
Mr. Ogle, managing editor of a radiology magazine in San Francisco, has lived by himself for about a year after sharing a flat in England for two years. ''When I was first living alone I enjoyed having the privacy,'' he says. But although he could afford to continue living alone, he is now in the process of looking for a roommate.
''I find myself having things to share on a spontaneous basis - I either have to seek someone out or not share it at all,'' he says. He considers shared living a ''good chance to grow - living with a roommate has obligations along with the pleasures. Both people have to learn to compromise or it simply doesn't work out.''
While finances often affect housing decisions, they also enter into other aspects of single living. Although there is a trend toward more home entertainment, younger singles generally spend more than their married counterparts to get together and go out with friends in their free time.
Restaurateurs reap benefits from singles who spend up to 63 percent of their food dollar eating out. Many exercise and sports clubs play to the unmarried market, and travel agents promote singles tours and resort spots.
Living single also takes energy, some find. ''It takes a high activity level to be a single who works and not be a recluse,'' says J. L. Barkas.
Maintaining close relationships with friends is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing a single person living alone. Without the ready companionship of a roommate or married partner, singles who are content living alone often nurture and garner support from a circle of friends. Some turn to their original family, to pets, to their work, or to their church for companionship and reassurance.
At a recent church symposium on singles Miss Barkas attended, the church realized it was gearing its sermons to the family and ''turning its back on singles,'' who need comfort and sustenance as much as, or perhaps more than, marrieds, she says.
Despite the challenges, says Miss Barkas, a person who chooses to live alone can expand on the joys and benefits of the situation, such as taking advantage of opportunities for self-improvement, developing hobbies, and ''keeping as crazy a schedule as you want.''
But for many singles, living alone is a mixed blessing.
A florist in Portland, Ore., who has lived alone for 14 years, says one of the things she enjoys is ''getting to do the things I want to do. I enjoy my music, my art, and my reading, which living alone allows you to do.'' She admits she has to deal with loneliness at times, which ''we all do, whether we are married or not.'' She finds loneliness particularly challenging during the ''little holidays'' such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
Since most of her friends are married, she cites one of the disadvantages of living single: ''Sometimes when you need to do something, no one is available.'' But she finds her married friends to be very inclusive, and she has no problem attending social occasions alone. ''Next week I'm going to a party - a get-together of old friends - and I'll be the only single there,'' she says.
A 28-year-old magazine editor in New York City who has lived alone for four years regards his efficiency apartment as temporary quarters, although he admits , ''I may wind up staying there a lot longer than I thought.''
He finds one of the challenges of living alone is ''keeping order in my apartment. I try to stay out of the rut of leaving clothes around because 'no one is going to see it.' '' Since he dislikes cooking, he tends to eat a big lunch at noon and just have something light in the evening at home. ''It's not fun to cook in the same room you live in,'' he says.
Despite the inconveniences, he wouldn't trade the independence and privacy of living alone for sharing a larger apartment with a roommate: ''As long as I'm single I'd rather have my own apartment - there's no question about that. Just having your own key in the door means a lot.''