In 1935 General Electric sponsored a competition to design a dream house for the ideal American family. The parents in this ideal family were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Bliss.” He was an engineer. She was a housewife. They had two kids – a boy and a girl. The contest asked Americans to submit ideas for all the ways that electricity could be used to improve their daily lives.
If the Bliss family was ever representative of America, it’s certainly not anymore. Marriage rates are down. Divorce rates are up. Americans are having children later than ever before. These trends have reshaped nearly every part of American life. One of the most consequential – and least noticed – changes of all is the subject of New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s thought-provoking new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.
Today, 28 percent of all American households are single people living alone – or "singletons" as the author dubs them. That is more than triple the rate of fifty years ago. Mr. Klinenberg writes, “People who live alone … are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational home, and the roommate or group home.”
Despite their ubiquity, Mr. Klinenberg argues that singletons comprise a kind of shadow population that’s misunderstood by policymakers and our culture writ large. "Going Solo" is an attempt to fill in the blanks – to explain the causes and consequences of living alone, and to describe what it looks in everyday life.
The first thing that should be said about living alone is that it doesn’t look like any one thing. The singleton lifestyle varies considerably with age, as Klinenberg discovered while interviewing more than 300 singletons whom he divides roughly into three categories: Young urban professionals; middle-aged people who divorced or never married; and older people, generally women and often widows, living in their own homes or in nursing or assisted living facilities.
Klinenberg renders their stories vividly but also with nuance. He shows that for many singletons, living alone wasn’t their first choice but given how their lives have unfolded, it’s ended up being the best option available. He also notes that ambivalence about one’s life circumstances is hardly unique to people who live by themselves.
Consider Mark, a Manhattan investment banker in his early-forties. Mark stayed single through his thirties and valued the extra space and time he had to devote to travel, adventure, dating, and building his career. But as he got older he began to have doubts about his single lifestyle.
“I look at my friends who are married and have these adorable children,” Klinenberg quotes Mark as saying, “and I worry that I made a mistake. My life feels pretty empty sometimes, and I’d like to be part of something more meaningful than what I do at work.” Mark wants to get married and start a family but he’s afraid that he won’t be able to convince his girlfriend that after two decades of working hard and staying out late, he’s really ready to commit himself to family.
Not all singletons crave a partner (or a roommate, or a multigenerational living arrangement, etc). In fact, Charlotte’s outlook is more typical than Mark’s among the singletons Mr. Klinenberg interviewed. She’s 52, and lives along in New York City after divorcing young. She acknowledges being “afraid of being alone down the road,” particularly if her health starts to fail, but she’s content with the life she has and she’s not sure there’s a better one out there for her.
“When you live alone there’s no compromising,” she says. “I do everything I feel like doing, when I feel like doing it. And it is totally self-indulgent. It’s just all about you.” She also knows that women tend to outlive men and she’s not eager to assume the responsibility of caring for an ailing husband.
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.
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.