My friend, I’ll call her Sarah, is a great example of the solo person in NYC. She lives alone. She loves it. She has built community around her in good friends, activities and an almost-weekly Friday evening at her local sushi bar. Like many of the people interviewed by Eric Klinenberg for his study and book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone she loves her life.
The Alone Demographic
Going Solo shines a spotlight on a huge and important demographic in our society. People are living alone. Huge numbers of people are living alone. And as he points out, this is an unprecedented development in the history of the human race. Yes, 27% of the households in the United States are single occupancy. 29% of seniors 65 and older live alone. In some of our big cities, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, between 35 and 45% of the households have just one person. In Manhattan it is 50%! Many people are living alone.
So yes, there has been an extraordinary rise of people living alone. The second part of the subtitle, “the surprising appeal” is one that deserves a closer look. Klinenberg in an appendix states clearly that this book is “about people living in cities.” In fact, mainly people living in four boroughs of New York City. The rosy picture he paints of professionals who live alone are successful professionals who can afford the cost of housing. (Studios cost on average $3,000 a month.) The singletons Klinenberg describes have active social lives, going out to restaurants, and partaking in arts and activities, a life style for which New York City is famous. I wonder how consistent his findings would be if he interviewed singles in Houston, Atlanta, and St. Louis. Cities that have less walking, less public transportation, more suburban neighborhoods and fewer cultural activities. He interviewed around 300 people. He never claims that his study is statistically significant. I have no doubt that there are many happy singles who live alone. But the broad brush implied may not hold up.
It certainly doesn’t for the second half of the book in which he explores the solitary lives of residents in single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) and the isolated elderly. These stories are sad. For the residents of the SROs it is clear that many retreat into a social alone-ness out of shame about where they are living. He cites the case of Nick as emblematic of others who says about his family, “I wasn’t around much for them. I didn’t like where I was living. I didn’t like the way I was living, so a lot of times I wouldn’t show my face… I just didn’t want people to know and see how I was.” His life living alone is not “surprisingly appealing.”
Nor are the numerous stories about the elderly for whom their only connection with another human being is the person who brings Meals on Wheels and other caretakers. He describes Paul who lives in his home of fifty years who “wishes more people would stop by and visit.” He writes of the elderly people who hang onto their independence, fiercely afraid of the alternatives of nursing homes and institutional care. Aging at home, socially isolated is not “surprisingly appealing.” It is unappealing and heartbreaking.
So many people living alone. Klinenberg summarily dismisses the research about loneliness in the United States. While he is correct that living alone does not necessarily mean being lonely, careful research shows that living alone does increase the chance of chronic loneliness. An AARP study completed in 2010 found that 45 million Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. When there is no one at home with whom to have a casual conversation, it is far easier to sink into social disconnection.
Is Alone the Best Choice?
So despite the title, Klinenberg’s book does not convince me that the major, radical change of people living alone can be trumpeted as a positive change for modern western society. What it does make clear is that those who are successful, healthy professionals, at the prime of their lives who live in a major metropolitan area with abundant opportunities for social engagement, living alone is a good choice. What about the rest of us?
Not living alone. Choosing to share housing. It’s not just for young adults. It’s for anyone. For isolated seniors, for whom the companionship and help of a younger person in exchange for low or no rent is a win/win for both parties. For people like Nick, for whom shared housing might have given him the respectability he needed to stay connected with his family. The modern era has so many adults who are going it alone. This doesn’t mean they have to live alone. Sharing housing with other adults can offer the best of both worlds―independence, and an affordable, companionable and comfortable home.
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