In his new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg argues that many people living on their own have richer social lives than other adults. He spoke with Joseph Stromberg.
How did you first get involved in researching this topic?
My first book was about a heat wave in Chicago where more than 700 people died, in 1995, and when I was doing research on the book I learned that one reason so many people died, and also died alone during that disaster, is that so many people were living alone in Chicago everyday. And I hadn’t really known that before. And during the research for that book, I got to spend some time learning about the rise of living alone, and specifically aging alone. And I got interested in the phenomenon, and concerned about the social problem of being alone and also isolated.
So when I finished, I started thinking about a next project that would continue the theme, and I got funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to do a bigger follow up study on living alone and social isolation in American life. When I got deeper into the research, I realized that, in fact, only a small number of people who are living alone are actually isolated, or lonely, and that I was really only looking at a very narrow part of the story. So I decided to expand it outward, and to redefine the issue, so that it’s not just a social problem, but also a social change.
I came to see it as a social experiment, because what I learned, surprisingly, is that until about the 1950s, there was no society in the history of our species that supported large numbers of people living alone. Since then, living alone has become incredibly common, throughout the developed world. Wherever there is affluence, and a welfare state, people use their resources to get places of their own.
How prevalent is living alone in America today?
In 1950, there were about 4 million Americans living alone, a little less than 10% of all households were one-person households. And back then, it was most common in the sprawling Western states, like Alaska, and Montana, and Nevada, because single migrant men went there.
Today, there are more than 32 million people living alone—according to the latest census estimates, 32.7 million—and that’s about 28% of all American households. This is an enormous change. Instead of being most common in the West, it’s now most common in big cities, and it's common in big cities throughout the country. In Seattle, and San Francisco, and Denver, and Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and Chicago, there are between 35 and 45% of the households have just one person. In Manhattan, where I live, about 1 of every 2 households is a one-person household.
It’s amazing. And it would be quite literally unbelievable were it not for the fact that those rates are even lower than the rates of living alone that we see in comparable European cities.
This topic is not typically part of the national dialogue, and in some ways, it’s overlooked. What do you think accounts for that?
That’s a real puzzle for me. Partly, it’s because not everyone who lives alone identifies that way. It doesn’t exist as a social identity. So we do track the number of singles, or unmarried adults, and we know, for instance, that today there are more American adults are single than married, and that hasn’t been true for centuries, but it's true now. So we do talk about that. But we haven’t taken it the next step further, which is to recognize that so many of the unmarried people are living on their own.
What’s surprising about that is that when I did interviews for this book—my research team and I did more than 300 interviews—we learned that basically everyone is connected in some way to a family member or friend who lives on their own. And it’s now so common that it goes unmentioned. But, typically, I think Americans are quite anxious about isolation. We believe in self-reliance, but we also long for community. So when there’s someone in our life who lives alone, we tend to worry that there’s something wrong, that they don’t have what they want or need.
You argue that the widespread assumption that living alone is a negative trend is flawed. What are some benefits you've noticed for people living alone?
Well, one thing is that we need to make a distinction between living alone and being alone, or being isolated, or feeling lonely. These are all different things. In fact, people who live alone tend to spend more time socializing with friends and neighbors than people who are married. So one thing I learned is that living alone is not an entirely solitary experience. It’s generally a quite social one.
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.
Do you have any thoughts on where this trend might be going?
When the economy got bad, pundits everywhere said that we would all start moving in with each other, and couples would not divorce, young people would move into their parents’ basements. Some of that turned out to be true, but in fact the levels of living alone have gone up since 2008. They’ve gone up, not down, and something similar happened in Japan during the lost decade of the 1980s. So I don’t predict that the current economic situation is going to end this trend. It seems to me that this is a social condition that’s here to stay.
Do you live alone?
Only when I’m traveling. I’m now married with two young children. But in the past I did live alone for a time. It was quite wonderful.