Bachelors and spinsters are concepts consigned to history. But figures suggest that new terms might be needed as the number of single people in their 50s has doubled in 15 years.
Analysis of ONS figures for the Sunday Telegraph show that the number of people in their fifties who have never been married or in a civil partnership, and who do not cohabit has almost doubled since 2002, from 377,180 to 724,439.
While the overall number of people who have never married or been in a civil partnership has increased slightly from 20,092,604 in 2002 to 22,678,798 in 2015, the increase has been significant for those in their late forties, fifties and sixties.
The shift is particularly striking among women. The number in their early fifties who have never married has increased by 150 per cent in 13 years, from 74,941 in 2002 to 185,694 in 2015.
Among men the number increased from 135,216 to 228,078, a 70 per cent rise. Meanwhile plunging divorce rates suggest that those who do marry are now less likely to split. Analysis published in December suggested that divorce fell to its lowest level for 40 years in 2014.
Experts suggest that commitment-phobic "silver singles" may have experienced their parents splitting up when children as divorce laws were liberalised in the early 1970s.
The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 allowed couples to divorce without having to prove fault – instead they could legally split if they had been separated for two years or more.
The divorce rate increased from 5.9 divorces per 1,000 couples in 1971 to 9.5 in 1972. Divorce rates continued to increase during the 1970s and peaked during the 1990s, at a high of 14.2 splits per 1,000 couples in 1994.
Witnessing people close to you going through such domestic trauma can have a significant deterrent impact when it comes to thinking about one’s own circumstances
Lawyer Alice Couriel
The figures suggest that this spate of divorces had a long-term effect on those who lived through it, particularly the children of the first wave of "seventies splitters".
Professor Ann Buchanan, of Oxford University, is a former social worker who researches the effects of divorce on children.
She said: “Divorce wasn’t so acceptable then so they would have been in their 20s and 30s and finding themselves a bit outside the norm.
“Bad experiences with divorce would certainly mean they were less likely to commit themselves,” she said. She added that her own research had shown that otherwise high-achieving young adults carried a strong sense of “sadness” about their parents’ divorces many years after they had taken place.
Debora Price, a professor of social gerontology at Manchester University, agreed that this spate of divorces “almost certainly had an effect”.
She said: "For the first time, lots of children were growing up in households where their parents had divorced.
“There is some suggestion that those children then did not see marriage as something they wanted to achieve.”
She said some children would have been so traumatised by living through difficult divorces that it would have put them off marriage for life.
However, others would have grown up with the idea that marriage was pointless because their parents had split so easily, she added.
“They may well have witnessed their parents being fine, and then having long-term partners which they did not marry,” she said.
Experts added that a growing number of older people are “living apart together” – in relationships which do not involve cohabiting or marriage.
Alice Couriel, a lawyer with Hall Brown Family Law, said clients who back out of marriage at the last minute have often been traumatised by second-hand experiences of others’ divorces.
She said: “Witnessing people close to you going through such domestic trauma can have a significant deterrent impact when it comes to thinking about one’s own circumstances.
“As a result, many men and women have naturally become more wary about situations which may compromise their own sense of stability and financial security.”
Research suggests that unmarried people are more likely to have health problems, leading to concerns that the growing population of older singletons could be costly for the NHS.
Official US Government research has found that never-married older people are more likely to struggle with health problems or poverty than married people.