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Going Solo

Eric Klinenberg's thought-provoking new book charts the singletons who are too often misunderstood by policymakers and our culture.

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Even if most people who live alone are content with their lives, the question remains: Is the rise of single living a good thing for society or not?  For many, especially political conservatives, the answer is not.  George W. Bush made marriage promotion a major plank of his administration’s cultural agenda and more recently Charles Murray’s book "Coming Apart" has stoked fears that our social fabric is unraveling.

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Klinenberg rejects this view. He thinks it’s misguided, divorced from reality, and distracting.  “What would happen if we spent less energy on these futile campaigns to promote domestic unity,” he writes, “and focused instead on helping people live better – healthier, happier, and more socially connected – if they wind up in places of their own?”

He argues that singletons are every bit as civically and socially connected as their partnered peers, if not more so.  He also questions the conventional wisdom that marriage produces ancillary benefits like longer life and better health.  He argues that much of the evidence for those claims is overstated in the media and/or derived from studies that aren’t precise enough to distinguish cause from effect (as in, does marital longevity cultivate good mental health, or does good mental health contribute to marital longevity?).

Regardless of how desirable it is from either a social or an individual perspective, high rates of living alone would seem to be here to stay.  As a rule, as countries get wealthier more of their citizens choose to live alone.  The rise of singleton living in the US is consistent with similar trends in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Japan, among other developed countries.  The recent recession resulted in a temporary dip in the number of people living alone, but it would seem foolish to root for economic calamity just to force people to start bunking up again.

And culturally, too, we’re not who we used to be.  “The cult of the individual” (as the sociologist Émile Durkheim put it) is ascendant and it’s hard to imagine the social forces that might beat it back.  As long as Americans remain committed to pursuing individual happiness, it’s unlikely that marriage and divorce rates are going to return to the levels of yesteryear when the former was nearly universal and the latter was unheard of.

Many of the people Klinenberg interviewed are living different lives than they may have envisioned for themselves as children – but you’d need a mighty degree of confidence in your own perceptive powers to say they’re living worse lives. Given that, it seems reasonable that the country should adopt the same perspective we adopt in our own lives when things don’t turn out quite as planned: Let’s face up to the reality of where we are, mitigate its consequences, and seize on the opportunities it presents.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.net.

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