You've likely seen a movie or TV show where someone living alone was portrayed as a loner, recluse or weirdo. Who lives solo these days, right? Happy people are married with nuclear families and a busy household, or so Hollywood would like us to believe.
NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg says nope, that's not true at all. His new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprisingly Appeal of Living Alone
documents one of the most seismic demographic shifts since the baby boom: in 1950, only 4 million Americans lived alone. Today, around 32 million Americans live alone, and that figure is analagous across many countries, not just in the West.
Why is this going-solo trend so popular? In the book, Klinenberg writes, "Both the wealth generated by economic development and the social security provided by modern welfare states have enabled the spike...Living alone helps us pursue sacred modern values – individual freedom, personal control, and self-realization – whose significance endures from adolescence to our final days."
Some other figures Klinenberg cites as evidence to support his argument: Between 1960 and 2000, the average number of people per household fell from 3 to 2.6 in the U.S., from 3.1 to 2.3 in the UK, from 4 to 2.5 in Canada. And what about those singletons, as Klinenberg calls them, only interacting with people online? Aren't they just nerdy loners
? Klinenberg cites a study finding how heavy users of social media are actually more likely than other to have large and diverse social networks in real life and more likely to participate in volunteer organizations.
In an interview with Digital Journal
, Klinenberg elaborates on his book's thesis and discusses why single living isn't as bad as it's made out to be.
Digital Journal: What first got you interested in writing on this topic?
Eric Klinenberg: I wrote a book decade ago on the serious heat wave in Chicago
and how a huge number of people died alone. I learned during the course of that book that people were dying alone because so many were aging alone. It was a new social phenomenon I wanted to understand; there was much more to this story. Over time I came to think that I stumbled upon the biggest social change of the last 60 years.
DJ: What's the most common misconception people have about those who live alone?
EK: That single people are sad and depressed and lonely and isolated. Some are, but many who are married with families are lonely. On average I was stunned to learn those live alone are more likely spend time with friends and neighbours, and spend money in bars and cafes.
Also if you live alone you get more independence to be who you want to be. If you live with your family you are more likely to be exposed to judgmental opinions and they'll pass along prejudices to you. You have more freedom to choose partners when living alone. It allows for experimentation.
DJ: What did you learn about how different regions approaching single living?
EK: It's interesting that the U.S. perceives Canada and Japan as more communally oriented and less individualistic but Canada and Japan both have higher rates of people living alone compared to the U.S.
Scandanavia is interesting, because around 47 percent of households are single-dwelling sites. Then look at Stockhold, where that number rises to 60 percent. When I tell people this stat during talks, their jaws drop. And the three nations where I've seen the the biggest increase in people living alone are China, Brazil and India.
DJ: You also have a great chapter about the misconceptions of seniors living alone...
EK: There's so much literature about how dangerous it can be to live alone, and yes, I believe living alone can be dangerous for people who are depressed and isolated and struck with mental illness. But a lot of literature is scientifically flawed, since some studies compare people living alone who are single versus those currently married, and leaves out seniors who were once married and realized marriage didn't work for them. What we don’t know is if people with good marriages have skills to make them happy regardless of whether they're married or not.
DJ: You outline the trend, but where would you like to see this progress? What can governments and communities to do to adapt to the singelton trend?
EK: Today affluent Americans and Canadians have access to assisted living facilities but they are hugely expensive. It would be naïve to start calling for vast housing construction projects for elderly living alone, but it's not the time for that in this current economy.
But the recession will not last forever and when governments rebuild infrastructure in cities, this seems like it should be a priority. It would really serve just about everyone. All of us should be interested in this issue, whether we live alone today or with others. We haven't really talked about that much before. There needs to be discussion about this trend now.
What do you think? Is living alone healthy and fosters independence? Or do you think more people should live with partners, family and roommates?