A seismic shift in how we live emerges from the pages of a new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist, spent seven years conducting interviews that reveal a startling change: In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single, four million of them lived alone and they made up a paltry 9 percent of households. Today, by contrast, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, 31 million of them live alone and they make up a hefty 28 percent of households.
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Are we becoming a nation of Greta (and Gert) Garbos?
"People who live alone," writes Klinenberg in Going Solo, are now "more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home." As a society, however, we seem to be in denial of this new reality: While some ignore it, others deplore it, branding it a symptom of social fragmentation or individual narcissism.
Going Solo challenges those stereotypes by letting singletons speak for themselves. "Having roommates feels sort of unadult," said a man in his late 20s. "Work is very social," a hard-charging magazine editor in her 30s told Klinenberg.
"I like the peace of coming home and not having to interact anymore, having a chance to decompress." And for older people, living alone often spells deliverance after a lifetime of serving others. "I'm in charge," commented a 90-year-old widow. "I can do whatever I want to do."
In short, living alone bears no resemblance to the popular myths being circulated about it. Nine of the most prevalent misconceptions are listed below, each followed by a rebuttal.
1. People live alone as a last resort. On the contrary, Klinenberg told me: "People live alone whenever they can afford to. Even during the recent [economic] downturn, the number of people living alone went up."
2. Most people living alone are elderly. Nope. The largest group of Americans living alone is 35 to 64 years old. And the fastest-growing group of singletons? Those ages 18 to 34; they number more than 5 million today, up from 500,000 in 1950.
3. Older people living alone wish they could move in with their kids. "They Don't Want to Live With You, Either" trumpeted the headline of a 2009 New York Times article, which found that older people preferred what gerontologists call "intimacy at a distance" with their families. Klinenberg's interviews produced some decidedly caustic quotes, such as the 80-year-old woman who said of her daughter and son-in-law, "They both drive me kinda crazy." And about her son's children: "Their 11-year-old is cute, sweet, but incredibly manipulative. Not to be trusted an inch. I stay out of their way for the most part."
4. Women who live alone are dying to get married. Not quite. The entry of large numbers of women into the labor force has made the single life a much more attractive option than matrimony with an unsatisfactory partner. Older women, particularly widows who have nursed a dying spouse, often decline their boyfriends' marriage proposals; they're "more interested in having someone to go out with than having someone to come home to," Klinenberg found.
5. Older people living alone are lonely, unhappy and isolated. As if! A study of 3,000 Americans ages 57 to 85 discovered that those who lived alone are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than their peers who were married.
6. Older people living alone are frequently poor and desperate. Thanks to Social Security and private pensions, "Americans over 65 are in much better financial shape than they were in 1950," reports Klinenberg. Back then, only 1 in 10 of them lived alone; today it is1 in 3.
7. Americans are more likely to live alone than people in other countries, because of our national faith in individualism and self-reliance. Au contraire. The four countries with the highest rates of living alone are Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. One of the reasons so many Scandinavians live alone is that they enjoy extensive social services that make it easier: "Living alone is a collective achievement," Klinenberg observes.
8. People living alone consume more of the planet's resources. Because living alone is largely an urban phenomenon, Klinenberg asserts, singletons living in multiple dwellings that use mass transit or walk have a much smaller carbon footprint than a family of four with two cars in a 2,500-square-foot house in the suburbs.
9. Aging alone leaves people extra-vulnerable if their health fails. 'Fraid not. Single people who have built strong social networks — and most of them do — often turn to their friends to support them in times of illness. In addition, says Klinenberg, older people are much healthier and more active today than in the past — one of the reasons they feel free to live alone.
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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, writes frequently for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.