The next thing, I would say, is that we live today in a culture of hyperconnection, or overconnection. If we once worried about isolation, today, more and more critics are concerned that we’re overconncted. So in a moment like this, living alone is one way to get a kind of restorative solitude, a solitude that can be productive, because your home can be an oasis from the constant chatter and overwhelming stimulation of the digital urban existence. It doesn’t need to be—you can go home and be just as connected as you are everywhere else. That’s one of the stories of my book—the communications revolution has helped made living alone possible, because it makes it a potentially social experience. Certainly, the people we interviewed said that having a place of their own allowed them to decompress, and not everyone can do that.
What factors are driving this trend?
The first thing to say here is that living alone is expensive, and you simply can’t do it unless you can pay the rent, or afford your own place. But we know that there are many things that we can afford but choose not to do, so it’s not enough to say it’s simply an economic matter.
I would say that the four key drivers that I identified were, first, the rise of women. Women’s massive entry into the labor force during the last half century has meant that more and more women can delay marriage, support themselves, leave a marriage that’s not working for them, and even buy their own home, which is a big trend in the real estate market. Marriage is just not economically necessary for women anymore, and that wasn’t true 50 or 60 years ago.
The next thing is the communications revolution. Today, living alone is not a solitary experience. You can be at home, on your couch, talking on the telephone, or instant messaging, or doing email, or many, many things that we do at home to stay connected. And that certainly was not as easy to do before the 1950s.
The third thing is urbanization, because cities support a kind of subculture of single people who live on their own but want to be out in public with each other. In fact there are neighborhoods in cities throughout this country where single people go to live alone, together, if that makes sense. They can be together living alone. That helps to make being single a much more collective experience.
Finally, the longevity revolution means that today, people are living longer than ever before. But it’s been an uneven revolution, with women living longer than men, most of the time, and often one spouse outlives the other by 5, 10, 20 years or more, which means that there’s a big part of life—the last decades of life—when it’s become quite common for people to age alone.
Listening to you, it reminds me of people that I know, in my own family, who have made similar choices to what you’re describing, especially older people.
That’s the thing—one of the things that’s been so remarkable for me about writing this book is how many people can personally connect to it, and feel that this is an experience that they have been living, and that their family has been living with, without actually naming it. And this is the kind of thing that sociology does very well, which is to help us identify and make sense of a condition that we experience as a personal or private matter, when it fact it’s a public and widely shared one. So I think one of the things I want to do in this book is help to name and identify and understand this social change that has touched all of us.
Since the trend is often thought of as a private matter, you argue that its impact on civic life and politics is overlooked. What are some of its effects in the public sphere?
In the book I argue that the spike of living alone has played a large and overlooked role in revitalizing cities, because singletons are so likely to go out in the world, to be in cafes and restaurants, to volunteer in civic organizations, to attend lectures and concerts, to spend time in parks and other public spaces. They have played a big role in reanimating central cities. People who study cities tend to believe that the way to revitalize cities is to create a better supply of public spaces and amenities.
The book focuses mostly on cities. What is happening in rural places?
People live alone in rural areas as well. We’ve also seen, in recent years, a new spike in living alone in states like North Dakota, that have a lot of migrant workers, so in some ways, it’s kind of a return to older trends. Living alone in a rural area can be much tougher than in a city, and the risks of isolation are greater. There’s not the ability to walk to place where you can see friends and family, and if you lose access to a car, you can be in real trouble. For now, it remains a kind of minority, or rare, phenomenon.
Although the book focused on America, it did allude to this trend in other countries as well. What's happening around the world?
The fastest-rising places are India, China, and Brazil, in terms of the rate of increase. And the places that have, by far, the most people living alone, are the Scandinavian countries. The book ends in Europe, specifically in Stockholm, where more than 50% of the households are one-person households. That’s a shocking statistic, for all of us.