New Book: More People Live Alone, But Not Lonely
Forget the myth about the sad and lonely singleton eating TV dinners, watching reruns of Friends. Today's unmarried citizen is engaged with the world, enjoying life and choosing to live alone in record numbers. A new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg dispels many of the stereotypes about single folks -- and no one was more surprised by the results of the research than the author himself.
"Writing this book was a mind-bending experience," says Klinenberg, a journalist and professor of sociology at New York University. "It was going to be called Alone in America, and I imagined that it was going to be about how cut off we are from each other. Instead, I learned that people who live alone are not necessarily lonely, and are instead very involved in their community -- actually more socially active with friends and neighbors than their married counterparts."
During 300 in-depth interviews of "singletons" (his term) of various demographics, Klinenberg found some startling numbers: More than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million -- roughly one out of every seven adults -- live alone. In comparison, in 1950 there were about 4 million Americans living alone, and a little less than 10 percent of all households were one-person households. In addition, the average American now spends most of his or her adult life unmarried and living alone.
What that amounts to, he says, is nothing short of "a huge sea change whose consequences cannot be underestimated." This can be seen, he says, in everything from the battles over gay marriage and contraception to trends in child-rearing and suburban architecture.
SecondAct spoke with Klinenberg about how baby boomers are at the forefront of this trend, why there continues to be prejudice against singletons, and why being on one's own is different from loneliness.
SA: You call the rise of singletons "a great social experiment." Does that mean we're still waiting for the results? What are some of the possible outcomes?
EK: One possible outcome is that we will adapt by designing better places to live alone -- places that allow people to have the domestic autonomy they desire but also the connections and care they need. Up until now, living alone has been considered a privilege, only available to the most affluent people. But we have this boomer generation that will set all records for aging alone, and we have not built the kind of housing they will need to stay connected. They are beginning to demand this kind of housing, but it is a work in progress.
Another possible outcome would hinge on the future of the welfare state, which I'm very concerned about. If we end up cutting Social Security and health care, it could be putting millions at risk.
SA: What did your research show are the main reasons people choose not to marry and instead to live alone?
EK: Women's economic independence is tremendously important here. They can now take care of themselves, buy themselves homes, get out of relationships that aren't working and postpone marriage. Marriage is just not economically necessary for women anymore, and that wasn't true 50 or 60 years ago. Communication technology is also a big story here -- it allows us to live alone but be connected to other people.
The third thing that's supporting the rise in solo living is urbanization. Cities support a kind of subculture of single people who live on their own but want to be out in public with each other.
Finally, because of increased longevity, people are living longer than ever before. However, with women often living longer than men by five to even 20 years, it's become quite common for people to live alone in their last decades of life.
[Related: More Singles Dive Into Real Estate Market]
SA: What was the most common reason people cited for choosing to live alone?
EK: I often heard that living alone is one way to get a kind of restorative solitude, because your home can be an oasis from the constant chatter and overwhelming stimulation of the digital urban existence. Certainly, the people we interviewed said that having a place of their own allowed them to decompress, and married people with kids are often not able to do that.
[Related: Writer Lives Alone, But Not Lonely]
SA: It was interesting to read how European countries are coping with their aging populations so beautifully.
EK: Yes, nations that have generous benefits prove that our interdependence permits independence. Today we see countries pulling resources away from the collective and privatizing everything, which would be disastrous. Politicians who are calling for such dramatic cutbacks to the safety net might find they need it themselves someday.
SA: You say the arguments against single living are damaging. Why?
EK: To tell someone that the only path to happiness is through marriage is stigmatizing. By doing so, we fail to allow people to make the best use of their lives. And it's not like single living is easy -- it's hard at first. It requires a whole different set of skills. You have to learn how to put yourself out there in the world, and not sit on the couch and watch TV. But if you can do that, it sets you up very well for life by teaching you self-reliance.
[Related: Searching for Happiness? Start Here]
SA: In your research you've seen that if someone lives alone, it does not necessarily mean they are lonely.
EK: That's right. Every singleton does get lonely sometimes, but so do married people. Many singletons I interviewed said that there's nothing lonelier than living with the wrong person.
SA: So what kinds of things can singletons do to avoid a sense of isolation?
EK: They need to put themselves out in the world. It's as simple as meeting friends for lunch or going for walks on their own. Singletons above the age of 60 are especially more likely to spend time with their neighbors than married folks are. But the world does not come to you. Singletons are not necessarily alone; they can have incredible company. They just need to reach out for it and stay connected. One of the stories of my book is that the communications revolution has helped make living alone possible.
SA: You say the rise of living alone has been transformational for our culture. How so?
EK: Because singletons give all of us new ideas on how to live -- even people in marriages or relationships. You see options for how to live successfully. It has also affected urban areas as singletons go to a lot of events and restaurants and bars. They bring enormous vitality and economic health.
[Related: Single After 40 columns]
SA: I see that you're now married with children.
EK: [laughs] Yes, but I remember my days of living alone with great fondness.
SecondAct Asks: Are you flying solo? What's the best part about living alone? Share your comments below.
Read more: Travel the World By Yourself with Confidence