Eric Klinenberg on Going Solo

The surprising benefits, to oneself and to society, of living alone

According to author Eric Klinenberg, there are more than 32 million people living alone—about 28 percent of all households. (Jocelyn Lee / Institute)
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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.

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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.

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