Eric Klinenberg: Going Solo, the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.
The appeal of Going Solo is the modern non-fiction book mix of statistics and factoids, case studies, interviews, and breezy narrative. Living alone today in the United States and the developed countries revolves around a heady mix of sociological movements: mores, labor, deprecation of marriage, reemergence of urban life, and the atomization of society, for better or worse.
During the past half century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people -- at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion -- have begun settling down as singletons.
By "singleton," author Klinenberg means not unmarried people but people living alone. In the U.S., 28 percent do, clustered in large cities where easy access to 24/7 social life revolving around restaurants, cafes, shops, entertainment centers, and especially job sources for younger people and social services for older people are more accessible than in suburbia or smaller cities and towns. Ease of living quarters, human contact, employment, and transportation have highlighted a trend away from institutional commitments, having children, and maintaining life-long relationships, whether to partners or employers. The trend fulfills American individualism originating in Emerson, Thoreau, the encounter with the frontier, and material culture, such that, as the author puts it, "it would be easy to conclude that the contemporary urban singleton is just the latest variation on this theme."
The author identifies the women's movement, telecommunications revolution, mass urbanization, and increased longevity as primary factors shaping aloneness as a positive factor. Solitude, he carefully points out, has a long tradition, East and West, among hermits, monks, and ascetics, but these examples are for modern society abstract or negative. The rise of the many factors mentioned liberated non-conformists (and women) to pursue aloneness without negatives, without social or moral sanctions, economic disadvantages, or psychological isolation.
Among interesting U.S. statistics, comparable in developing countries:
- number of people in household: 5 in 1900, 3 in 1950, 2.6 in 2000;
- number of rooms per child: .7 for 2.4 children in 1960, 1.1 for 1.9 children in 2000 (meaning that children are being trained to live alone);
- square footage per house: 983 in 1950, 2,200 in 2000 (meaning additional space for children, recreation, and material possessions);
- median age of marriage: 23 (male) and 21 (female) in 1940 with 6 percent not married by age 40; 28 (m) and 26 (f) in 2010 with 16 percent (m) and 12 percent (f) not married by age 40;
- first-time home buyers: 36 percent not married, in 2009;
- ratio of pets to children in household: 60 percent pets to 36 percent children, 2004;
- dating rate: 49 percent of unmarrieds have not dated in the last 3 months (meaning lack of active pursuit of romantic partners);
- divorce/remarriage rate: 55 percent (male) and 44 percent (female) over age 25.
The author also offers this summary fact:
Most people who live alone are financially secure, not poor, and those who purposely use their domestic spaces as an oasis from their busy, stressful work lives report that is a regenerating not an isolating experience.
One significant negative social trend is that many single men without college degrees are considered "unmarriageable," with downward social and economic expectations. In 1970, only 8 percent of the male population could so be characterized, but in 2006 the percentage is 22. Urban areas have thus experienced the revival of SROs, i.e., single room occupancy hotels or hostels, usually in poorer, less safe urban areas, as economic and labor prospects disenfranchise males from a better livelihood.
Though a smaller section of the book, the chapter "Aging Alone" further extends the complexity of aloneness. People aged 65 or older have increased dramatically in numbers: ten percent of the population in 1950, 33 percent in 2010, due to increased longevity and the physical health and capacity for sustaining independence. But usually age requires living differently, often partnerless, jobless, with waning health and a shrinking social circle, including family circle. In the latter case, one telling statistic: 70 percent of widows lived with a child in 1900, while in 2000 only 20 percent did. (The number varies by circumstance, income, race, ethnicity, and other factors. For example, 40 or 50 percent of elderly in Harlem live alone.)
What do all these figures mean? Klinenberg's observations are important.
The extraordinary rise of living alone is not in itself a social problem. But it is a dramatic social change that's already exacerbated serious problems for which there are no easy solutions: social isolation for the elderly and frail. Reclusiveness for the poor and vulnerable. Self-doubt for those who worry that going solo will leave them childless, or unhappy, or alone.
The social changes driving the shift towards living alone are here to stay, and policy-makers and cultural critics need to realize that living alone is "a valid individual choice" that has not accelerated a decline in collective life or social commitments but transformed them, such that things "are unlikely to be reversed." That said, however, people today
can easily forget that it's vital to learn how to be alone. ... [I]instead of leading to loneliness or isolation, having a place of one's own gives us time and space for a productive retreat. Solitude, once we learn how to use it, does more than restore our personal energy. It also sparks new ideas about how we might better live together.
Klinenberg's book addresses many of the popularized excoriations of living alone, while realistically analyzing the causes of the singleton movement. The book usefully supersedes the plethora of recent books on contemporary aloneness to offer constructive facts and insights.