Living Alone

The New York Times recently ran a précis of a book by Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. According to Klinenberg,

More people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.

Today five million people in the United States between ages 18 and 34 live alone, 10 times more than in 1950. But the largest number of single people are middle-aged; 15 million people between ages 35 and 64 live alone.

The U.S. is not unique.

By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.

In short, it appears that in modern societies, when people can afford to live alone, more tend to do so.

Klinenberg observes that:

The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.

But rather than barricading themselves behind thick walls of privacy, these solo artists are, according to Klinenberg, socially active individuals.

Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.

In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.

However, the possibility of living apart from others is not unique to those who live alone. The trends for the last few decades show that the size of houses has dramatically increased while the size of families has decreased. The result is large houses occupied by a few people, all of whom have their own bedroom (can you imagine forcing kids to share the same room?) and often each bedroom is accompanied by a private bathroom. In other words, these homes afford their occupants the ability to live semi-isolated lives, especially when you put a computer or television in each room. As Klinenberg puts it,

Those in large suburban homes often splinter into private rooms to be alone. The image of a modern family in a room together, each plugged into a separate reality, be it a smartphone, computer, video game or TV show has become a cultural cliché.

But people choosing to live alone are not necessarily anti-social. They can maintain connections with others through various social media:

New communications technologies make living alone a social experience, so being home alone does not feel involuntary or like solitary confinement. The person alone at home can digitally navigate through a world of people, information and ideas. Internet use does not seem to cut people off from real friendships and connections.

We can be more connected than ever before even as we are, at the same time, living alone more than ever before. There is an obvious attraction here. After all, this new way of living makes it possible to dramatically limit encounters with all but the people we choose to see. One can avoid the inconveniences of a difficult roommate or a less than perfect spouse. My time and space are my own and I need to share only when I choose to go out or let someone else in.

I suspect I am not the only one who finds this development somewhat troubling. And I say this as someone who likes his privacy and solitude.

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