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.

First, and perhaps most obviously, living alone can lead to a disposition that I am center of the universe, which is precisely the false notion held by children and which parents spend plenty of time countering. If I live alone, when I eat, sleep, brush my teeth, and exercise I must ask leave of no one and can to exactly as I please. I never have to make a meal out of something I despise because it is the favorite of someone else. I don’t have to get up in the night to help a sick roommate or spouse, to rub a sore back, fetch a glass of water, or get an extra blanket to stave of the chills of fever. If I do any of these things, it is solely for myself and no other. My schedule is my own and my life is arranged so that I need to defer to no one. As attractive as all this might sound (and I can admit the attraction), I’m not sure it’s healthy. Perhaps when God observed that it is not good for man to be alone, He was not referring merely to the fact that humans need companionship but that the temptation to focus exclusively on the self would increase exponentially in the absence of another person with whom to share space and time.

Second, living in close proximity to others provides the context within which important social virtues are formed. We are all, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, dependent rational animals. We enter the world as dependents, and we generally leave the world in some degree of dependence. Even during our years of so-called independence, we are, if we consider the matter with care, deeply dependent on other people. The fact of dependence, however, provides rich opportunities that radically independent creatures would never have. On the one hand, caring for those who are dependent forces us to think and act in terms of self-sacrifice. We forgo our personal desires in order to bring happiness to those in need. This is obviously the case of parents with small children, but these are not, presumably, the people choosing to live alone. Caring for an aging parent, for example, requires that adult children sacrifice their time and resources to serve another. This is not easy, and it requires selfless giving. The virtues of patience, self-control, and generosity are cultivated in the process. On the other side, as we age, we will necessarily find our independence waning. This is, no doubt, a frightening prospect: strength fades; capacities decline; the ability to live independently slowly dissipates. But this decline provides a surprising opportunity for the cultivation of gratitude, for though it may be more blessed to give than to receive, it is often more difficult to receive than to give. Especially, when the gift can never be repaid and all that can be offered is a continuous sense of dignified gratitude to those who are giving selflessly. These opportunities—with all their difficulties, stresses, and heartbreaks—are lost when people live alone. The sense of independence is real, but these rich and very human contexts for the cultivation of virtue are forfeited.

In this vein, Klinenberg points out that it is not just the young and middle-aged who are choosing to live alone.

A century ago, nearly 70 percent of elderly American widows lived with a child; today — thanks to Social Security, private pensions and wealth generated in the market — just 20 percent do. According to the U.C.L.A. economist Kathleen McGarry: “When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone. They buy their independence.”

But in buying our independence, it’s possible we lose things that are less tangible but nevertheless good. It is not difficult to imagine social and perhaps even political costs disguised by a heady sense of independence that only puts off recognition of the fact that we are, in our very natures, dependent creatures. In this light, cultivating an awareness of the various ways we are dependent might open up new vistas of self-knowledge, not to mention gratitude. It might even compel us to consider ways of repaying the various debts we all own.

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  1. I suppose the mobile euthanasia units will be busy when the soloists described in this article start getting old.

  2. Prof. Mitchell –

    I wonder whether this apparent phenomenon is but a consequence of the “massification” of society. The crowd is untruth has never been more accurate than it is today.

    Could the desire to live apart from others simply be for those seeking it a respite from the masses?

    Unfortunately, most folks don’t live in the way and manner espoused and promoted by this website and the good people who pursue its mission.

    Society has changed; in most instances, the porch has been replaced by an ersatz community of forced socialization — could choosing to live apart from this superficiality be a reaction to what has replaced the “porch.”

    In others word, is this more of a reaction against the masses rather than an indictment of those who find the crowd to truly be untruth…?

    We are indeed social agents, but has the muck and mire of today’s society at large, the barbarism and viciousness that defines much of today’s main stream culture, taken its toll on some folks.

    As a reaction to the lowest common denominator culture, some introspective social agents have chosen to remove themselves from this mess while others seem to adapt to it for whatever reasons…

    All the best,

  3. In the anti-culture made up of would-be Promethean selves – who would shake their fist at all gods but who are actually estranged, alienated and shriveled selves, bereft like Cain and Grendel of intimate and lasting fellowship at home and hearth, among kith and kin, and with blood and earth – the abnormal, living alone, becomes the normal. Cut off from real communion they embrace the collective the father of which is the abstract corporation known as the Hobbesian state which tells them when they can legally fornicate, when they can legally drink, when they can legally marry, whatever that is, and when they can legally rent a car. Or, if one wants to be a little more Nietzschean, they are the Jacobin fraternité with no father at all, fatherless brothers dancing on the edge of the abyss yawning up at them.

  4. It used to be that one’s family counteracted the notion we all have that we’re much more important than we really are. You might be making millions in the market or be a celbrated beauty, but your family knew you couldn’t tie your own shoes.

    Today the interenet proves on a daily basis that we really are as fabulous as we think were are — at least as long as we properly edit and censor our thoughts for maximum audience value — so it stands to reason that the family has to go. I mean, if you’ve got five thousand followers, how can you be wrong about anything? And who are these real-world dweebs telling you to put the toilet seat up or down?

  5. “First, and perhaps most obviously, living alone can lead to a disposition that I am center of the universe. ”

    This is folk psychology. In two decades of work as a psychologist, I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that this is true. I’ve conducted hundreds of in-depth psych evaluations and have extensive experience treating both individuals and couples. A narcissist will be a narcissist whether living alone or with someone else. I’ve seen many husbands, wives and partners who act with little or no regard for their s.o. On the other hand, empathic caring people don’t become less so because they live alone. Every day, they must still deal with a world that reminds them that they are in no sense the center of the universe.

  6. I have news for you: the narcissists I know live with other people, making their companions miserable, catering to no one’s needs, expecting everyone in the household to cater to them.

    True narcissists don’t do well alone. They tend to find it disagreeable to have to do for themselves what there is no longer anyone around to do for them.

    In fact, a bit of solitary living might well be the cure for narcissism.

  7. All those single little households gets the economy revving I am sure (each one with their own set of stuff costs a lot of dough). Its a little too easy to say that everyone living alone will become narcisists. After all, there is a large and long Christian tradition of living alone leading to holiness and altruism in some forms of desert hermit monasticism. But of course it is something you have to WORK at, it doesnt just happen b/c you live alone (or with others). That point being said, I find the implication that all those single households are reading big philosophy tomes or Russian novels or creating beautiful important work with all that quiet are kinda dubious. Odds are they are just surfing the net and buying junk and entertaining themselves like everybody else. Alone or together, if you don’t care about becoming a better person its not going to happen.

  8. Ah, yes, the 2-room apartment in a 3rd-floor walkup shared by two parents and 3 children is just so, well, morally virtuous.

    No, here we have yet another apocalyptic jeremiad based on yet another popular culture book, the facts of which may or may not be accurate (I’ve not read it) against a lifestyle that apparently pleases many people but, perhaps because it does indeed make them happy, upsets the censor who believes that suffering (by living with people one does not want to live with) is necessary and good for the soul.

    So, 5 million between the ages of 18 and 34 and 15 million between the ages of 35 and 65 are living alone. But how many of those millions spend their entire lives alone? Could one even count in the millions the number of people who get from birth to age 18 without living with at least one other person? That’s at least 18 years of learning the “virtues of patience, self-control, and generosity”. Is it likely that those virtues will be lost by the “narcissism” of living alone thereafter.

    I suspect (no data, just guessing) that most of those living alone fall into one of three categories. Young people out of high school or college, just beginning to work, and not yet in a serious relationship. Or people between relationships (the broken up, separated, divorced or widowed). Or the elderly whose children and grandchildren have moved to other parts of the country and who cannot afford to live in a nursing home assuming they would even want to.

    And, again I am hypothesizing from experience, I suspect that most of those living alone have real human-to-human relationships. The smartphone is an appendage that keeps them in contact. They take soup to the friend who is sick, help the neighbor bring in the groceries, belong to a reading club, volunteer at church, visit the sick in hospitals, or have a standing football “date” with the guys.

    I would also like to point out that the person who is truly living alone, out of choice and out of a desire to be the “center of the universe”, does not ask or expect other people to do the grocery shopping, pick up the prescription, take care of one when one is ill. In short, that person does not impose his needs on others. Once upon a time, I believe, we used to honor the self-sufficient man, the Thoreau of Walden.

    Perhaps Mr. Mitchell would prefer that people who move out of the family home move into communes where they can share their lives with dozens of different people, thus gaining even more experience with the “virtues of patience, self-control, and generosity” which virtues apparently can be learned only by living with other people and which must be reinforced daily throughout one’s entire life least the lessons be unlearned or forgotten, thereby leading to the demise of civilization as we know it – a civilization currently overflowing with generous, patient, selfless individuals.

  9. Mark, in your commentary, you completely failed to acknowledge the role that personality type plays in determining what living situation people gravitate toward. You’re in essence assuming we’re all the same.

    An extravert who’s invigorated by being around other people might find it draining to live alone. An introvert who gets exhausted from social interaction might get recharged by getting the solitude that living alone affords them. Some people deal with stress best by working through it on their own terms without the support of others. Other people deal with stress best by communicating it to a significant other they live with. Etc., etc.

    How about this: people should opt to live in such a way that works best for them, based on their own individual psychological and practical desires and needs?

    The notion that people, regardless of their psychology and specific circumstances, are best suited to not live alone is a bad one.

  10. I often think of Howard Hughes as the ultimate cautionary tale of total freedom and independence.

  11. “a civilization currently overflowing with generous, patient, selfless individuals”

  12. Unusually good discussion.

    Nicely illustrates a fact of human nature:

    Extroverts don’t understand introverts. Introverts do understand extroverts.

  13. “I often think of Howard Hughes as the ultimate cautionary tale of total freedom and independence.”

    The life of Howard Hughes has absolutely nothing to do with total freedom and independence or living alone. It’s quite obvious from what we know now about OCD that Hughes suffered severely from it his entire lifetime and possibly other forms of mental illness. Nobody watches “Ice Station Zebra” over hundred times or keeps dozens of bottles of his own urine in his room without suffering from some form of mental illness. Living alone wasn’t the cause of it. He had dozens of live-in servants at his beck and call 24 hours a day.

    What didn’t help Hughes is that he made everyone around him dependent upon his money. He was never alone in his lifetime. He just surrounded himself with sycophants instead of friends.

  14. I live alone and have for 20+ years after having been married for 12. This whole post sounds like a complaint from someone who thinks somebody else may be having a better time than they are.

    You say yourself that single people are more social, have more control over their own personhood and are more self-realized. Where is the downside of that? How in the world is having time to volunteer, join community organizations, be a good friend to many, a good family member to distant and not-so-distant relatives, take in stray animals which would otherwise be euthanized, and on and on, make me a lesser being? How would waiting to brush my teeth make me a happier, more-complete person?

    Man, this type of cheap moralizing angers me. It’s nothing more than a demand to conform to your standards of behavior. Well, excuse me for saying so, but go f*** yourself. You’re not the boss of me.

  15. Well, Kevin, waiting to brush your teeth might at least have given you enough patience and humility to be able to make your point without resorting to crudities, asterisks or no asterisks.

    “You’re not the boss of me” – the classic lament of the petulant adolescent, coming from a 50 + presumed adult. Priceless.

  16. Individuals alienated from close personal and family relationships, personally responsible to abstract notions of humanity but otherwise kings of themselves. No wonder there is so much unhappiness in the first world today and so much spent on drugs and therapies to combat it.

  17. It has long been my opinion that the nuclear family is a severed limb. The real, living family is the extended family in a stable community with an economy made up of family businesses that allow their owners to make a living meeting the community’s needs. In the neo-suburban way of life, introduced after World War II, each middle-class couple must have their own detached house in a subdivision entirely composed of three-bedroom houses with no room for grandparents, without restaurants or stores within walking distance and thus with reduced street life, and with the expectation that, as income increases, a family will abandon all ties to their current neighborhood and “trade up” to a neighborhood of larger houses on larger lots (and therefore even greater distance from the nearest neighbors, so that isolation comes to be associated with status). Thus separated from the social ecosystem that once sustained it, the nuclear family has been slowly dying ever since, with greater and greater numbers deciding against it. The same fate has befallen the mainstream churches and the lodges to which a third of the USA’s adult male population once belonged. In a world economy characterized by the creative destruction of unfettered capitalism and a consequent need for nimbleness on the part of working-age adults, a solitary life minimizes pain by keeping local ties to a minimum.

  18. Tony A, well said.

    Kevin, the point was certainly not that living alone makes you a “lesser human being”. It seems that in your case living alone affords you the time to do the sort of volunteering and do-goodery you are apparently proud of. I think the point is that all of this is on your own terms and therefore has just a tinge of selfishness to it. Yes, you are a good friend to many but you get to choose when to meet up with them and allow them to cry on your shoulder. You are a part of community organizations and volunteer, but it’s on your chosen schedule. It’s still really all about YOU; who do you feel like volunteering for, who do you feel like befriending? Everyone is generous with something they’re wanting to give up, how generous are you with something you want to keep for yourself? There is something stretching and testing about coming home to roommate or family member who needs your attention when you might otherwise have been planning on getting some peace and quiet. Living alone might not diminish your capability to do good in the world but it’s in a sort of vacuum. Everyone when they are alone is patient, kind, loving, helpful, generous. When other people come in with their own agendas, demands, and ideas of how to do things we begin to find out how impatient and selfish we really are. The people in your life, especially the ones you live with, are the mirrors in which we see who we really are. When you are living alone there is no one to hold up the mirror, to tell you that your cranky in the morning, or short tempered in the afternoon.

  19. I am not against those who wish to live alone, but in my opinion I do not feel comfortable with living alone, and nor am I ever comfortable with living in a household without the physical presence of at least another person. I was living in a residential home where there were people present available 24/7 till the home closed down in August 2011, which forced me in a smaller accommodation with only one house-mate and staff present only according to the staff rota. There are however sleep-ins, but staff were only on duty awake from 7:00am and in the evenings till 10:00pm or 11:00pm with the exception of weekdays between 8:20am and 4:00pm during day-services, but does not help when the day-services finish earlier than usual.
    I have never been able to come home to any household without another person sleeping in. I therefore whenever I come out late on a night out, I am only able to do this if my friend who I am with sleeps over, which alleviates the problem of loneliness.

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