Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist, professor of sociology, and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He also contributes to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Slate, and Le Monde Diplomatique. He has just published an essay on the new, single lifestyles in the major metropolises: Going Solo (Penguin Press HC, 2012).
About five years ago I started working on a book that I planned to call ALONE IN AMERICA.
My original idea was to write a book that would sound an alarm about a disturbing trend: the unprecedented rise of living alone.
I was motivated by my belief that the rise of living alone is a profound social change – the greatest change of the past 60 years that we have failed to name or identify. Consider that, until the 1950s, not a single human society in the history of our species sustained large numbers of people living alone for long periods of time. Today, however, living alone is ubiquitous in affluent, open societies. In some nations, one-person households are now more common than nuclear families who share the same roof.
Consider America. In 1950, only 22 percent of American adults were single, and only 9 percent of all households had just one occupant. Today, 49 percent of American adults are single, and 28 percent of all households have one, solitary resident. In cities, the numbers are even higher. The places where more than 40 percent of households have just one resident include Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In Washington DC and Manhattan, where I live, nearly half of all households have one occupant. And in New York City, more than one million people live alone.
For most commentators, these trends are worrisome. Convention wisdom says that living alone is unnatural and unhealthy. It is atomizing, isolating, and lonely, and its prevalence signals an age of disconnection and declining communities.
I must confess that this is what I thought when I began my research. I came to the topic of living alone while I was working on a previous book, called Heat Wave, about a devastating disaster that killed about 700 people in Chicago during a three day heat spell in 1995. One of the most disturbing features of that event is that hundreds of people – mostly old, frail, and poor – died alone. In many cases, they were not discovered for hours or days after they perished. This, of course, is a story that you know well from your own history, since in 2003 a much longer heat wave killed about 15,000 people here in France.
Living alone can be dangerous for the most isolated and frail individuals. But I want to report that what I ultimately discovered in my research, and what I argued in my book, Going Solo, is that it would be a mistake to view the rise of living alone as merely a social problem. It is, instead, a social experiment, and one that we can observe wherever and whenever people can afford to do it.
When I began my research I believed that the majority of singletons (my term for people who live alone) were older. But I was mistaken. In the US, only 1/3 of those who live alone are above 65, and most of them are able to live alone because they enjoy more economic security and better health than their predecessors. The majority of American singletons are between the ages of 35 and 64. Most were once married or at least had a domestic partner, but now they are going solo, and they may well live this way for many years.
In recent decades, the fastest growing group of singletons are young adults, under 35. Consider that, in 1950, only 500,000 young Americans, or 1 percent, lived alone; today, 5 million, or 11 percent, do. And the numbers have gone down only slightly – a mere one percentage point – since the Great Recession. For young people, getting a place of one’s own is so important that they are willing to pay a great premium to do it. Going solo is a mark of success and distinction. In an age where we marry later than ever, living alone is how you become an adult.
When I began my book I presumed that there was a strong connection between living alone and being isolated. This also turns out to be wrong. Compared to married people, singletons are actually more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors. They are more likely to go out at night and spend time and money in bars, restaurants, cafes, and, let’s face it, lectures like this one. Surprisingly, they are even more likely to volunteer in civic organizations.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my research is that living alone is not the same as being alone. Nor is it the same as feeling lonely. In fact, one of the most powerful things I heard in my interviews with people who used to be married and are now going solo is that there is nothing more lonely than living with the wrong person. For those who live alone, the feeling of loneliness can be a productive emotion. It is your body’s signal that you need to get off your couch and into social life. But the feeling of loneliness means something very different if you experience it when you’re sitting with your spouse at the dinner table or lying in bed together at night. We shouldn’t pretend that loneliness is only a problem for those who are on their own.
Sixty years ago, living alone was most common in rural areas, particularly in places that attracted migrant working men. Today, however, going solo is an urban phenomenon. Our cities are full of single people who are alone, but together, packed into neighborhoods with active sidewalks and busy public areas. If I tell you that in Paris, half of all households have just one person, you can probably identify the neighborhoods where singles are far more common. Whether you’re single or married, I’m betting that these are the neighborhoods where you go to have fun.
What explains the rise of living alone?
First, it is produced by affluence and economic security, whether gained from the market or – more commonly – the welfare state. Living alone is expensive: it is simply impossible in poor nations or poor neighborhoods.
Second, the rising status of women. When women gain control of their own lives and their own bodies – when they moved into the paid labor force en masse, got access to contraception, and gained crucial civil rights – this changed the way we organized our family life. The age of first marriage went up. Divorce rates went up. So did the rise of living alone. In places like Saudi Arabia, where there is wealth but women have no capacity to for independence, hardly anyone lives alone.
Third, the communications revolution, beginning with the television and the telephone, which allow people who are home alone to be connected to the world like never before. Today we have the Internet, which means Skype, Facebook, email, craigslist, instant messaging, and countless applications that can make being home alone a decidedly social experience. And yes, I know, many of you are concerned that we spend so much time cuddling our iPads and iPhones that we neglect each other. But the best research to date shows that the heaviest users of social media are also the heaviest users of face to face interaction. It’s too early to know with certainty, but our deepest fears of digitally-induced disconnection may not be warranted.
Finally, the rise of living alone results from the longevity revolution. People are living longer than ever before, and this means that some of us, usually women, are outliving their spouses by 5, 10, even 25 years. You probably know this story, because there’s likely someone in your family or friendship circle who is aging alone today. And if you do, you probably know that for them, the capacity to remain independent is crucial to their sense of integrity and dignity. If you tell them that they have to give up their own apartment and move in with family, friends, or a nursing home, you can bet that they will experience this as a loss of face. In the abstract, they would rather live with their spouse. But if that’s not possible, they strongly prefer living alone to the other available options.
So far I’ve told you how many misconceptions I had when I began to examine the rise of living alone. I’ve explained that the title, Alone in America, was wrong because the great majority of those who go solo are not alone, lonely, or isolated. Alone does not describe them. But at this point I should also acknowledge that the other part of the title – in America – was even worse. I presumed that living alone was an American phenomenon, a consequence of our extreme individualism, our belief in self-reliance, our love of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Lone Ranger. How wrong I was! The United States is a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to living alone. Singletons are more common in France, Germany, and England, as well as in Canada and family-centric Japan. Living alone is most prevalent in the Scandinavian countries, where more than 40 percent of households are singleton at the national level.
Why is this? Because investments in the common good and the public life of a society – in housing, health care, transportation, and safe urban environments – make living alone a more viable option. By investing in each other, we give individuals capacity to live the way that works best for them at any given time.
In the end, I realized something else that’s surprising. Living alone is not a sign of our disconnection, but of our social integration. That’s why it’s more common in cities, as well as in nations with generous welfare states, respect for women, and strong civil liberties.
The truth is, it’s our interdependence that makes our independence possible. Taking care of each other is the most liberating thing we can do.
Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la première saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé en novembre et décembre 2012.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Eric Klinenberg, "Going Solo", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2013. Consulté le 04/10/2023. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/going-solo