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Going Solo
Going Solo
The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone
Submitted by Francesca R
10th August 2016
Going Solo

Human beings are social animals, according to Aristotle and Roman Emperor Aurelius. Yet, in contrast to a couple of hundred millennia of collective living, the last generation or two has uniquely been accompanied by a big rise in living alone. All adult age cohorts have involved themselves in the experiment. This includes your reviewer who has lived solo since as soon as she could afford to which was nearly twenty years ago. It doesn't (any more) include Eric Klinenberg, the book's author, a snippet probably introduced to head off notions of a sociological manifesto written by an avid and presumed biased practitioner. And the book isn't a narrow celebration of unrepresentative high-income urbanite singlehood either, though that group does feature quite a bit.

More than a quarter of American households are one person today. Across Scandinavia the fraction is above 40%. In metro areas the concentration is a lot higher, and urban centres higher still. Half of the residences in New York's Manhattan borough are for one occupant. Stockholm is the global capital of living alone with 60% of homes singly occupied. More women than men go solo, and not just at the age range at which they tend to outlive them. The fraction of 35-64 year olds who are singletons (the term refers to living arrangements not relationship status, incidentally) is greater than that of younger folks, not least because it isn't the cheapest thing to do. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, those over 65 faced with the prospect tend to choose alone living more often than not, if they can. (And better enabling the if they can part in general is one of the author's suggestions).

Klinenberg's thesis is that solitary living has been able to flourish because of four synergies, namely increased agency of women (there is much evidence of uneven cost/benefit to traditional family living which on several levels has given females a worse deal), online connectivity (supposedly, ability to still be social while alone), mass urbanisation (offering the possibility of as much anonymity and reduction of peer influence as one desires), and higher longevity which has also become more gender-differential too (this increases the incidence of a single member of a household surviving the other(s) by years or decades). The first three of these work to increase the "because they can" quotient, the fourth is more "because they may have to"

But because people can doesn't address why they do. Klinenberg offers several approaches to this. Firstly, in the rich world at least, lots of children have their own bedroom, which is a historical novelty. Lower fertility assists this development in more densely populated and lower income neighbourhoods. Adult supervision of kids' time has fallen as well because working hours have lenghtened, and swallowed up more women. This has individualised family interaction, such that young adults spend more time alone, and they began doing this a few decades before instagram, youtube and snapchat arrived to push things even further in the same direction.

Second, and on top of such pre-conditioning, a profound cultural shift towards individualism is alleged to have taken place over two centuries of economic ascent, documented by social scientists of many persuasions (Emile Durkheim, Joseph Schumpeter), not just by American libertarians and Margaret Thatcher. Living alone facilitates the pursuit of values that are increasingly universal and sacred: freedom, control, agency and privacy (or anonymity). There is probably greater social pressure to be good to oneself than ever before as well, not that people seem to need tremendous persuasion.

Another advocacy of going solo that frequently surfaced in Klinenberg's many interviews was the benefit of solitude as sanctuary to recover and recharge for social engagement. Your reviewer breathes this rationale daily.

But living alone is expensive in a world where policy and infrastructure has evolved primarily around nuclear family formation. This probably explains why Nordic countries--where both the housing stock and provision of social insurance are better oriented in a direction conducive to singletons--have its highest incidence. Culture of individual meets wide safety net, if you will.

Attitudes are apparently slow to catch up with what is now a strongly established trend. Laments still abound that associate solitary living with community fracture, civic disintegration and social decline (and bowling alone). This does not seem to have dissuaded many singletons, and it doesn't appear to be correct either according to research on living arrangements and public participation going back a few decades. Such attitudes probably retard institutional change (Your reviewer travels a lot by herself and with very few exceptions routinely finds that she pays the same hotel bills as if there were two of her. Restaurant servers are usually on point about swiftly yanking away the second cover setting from her table though.)

Not everyone plans to live alone of course. Marriages end at a greater rate than they used to, everywhere, and there is little social stigma to divorce. The economic (and sexual) benefits of marriage are quite robustly researched, yet that is insufficient to dissuade people from leaving bad relationships in greater numbers, so the costs of staying must be higher. Even for women, for whom the maternity clock often ticks louder.

The other significant group to enter single status unintended are the elderly widowed. Aging alone is certainly not easy, and due to its cost, public policy is consistently stacked against facilitating it, such that a relatively enjoyable version of this is mostly the preserve of the rich. And yet remaining as autonomous as possible is a firmly revealed preference over this group's other alternatives. This shouldn't point to a glib inference that the single elderly want to go solo, but does suggest how they view their next best options.

Klinenberg's coda is a call to redesign things so that states and societies are better able to meet the needs of an inevitably growing solo-living citizenry (none of the drivers or enablers of the trend are likely to reverse). The point here is to respect free choice (albeit from options limited by circumstance in cases like divorce and widowhood), rather than indulge in social engineering fantasy, and to do more to indemnify those who go solo against the known hazards of the condition. And this redesign seems focused on housing (more single occupant dwellings) and greater statutory social care provision for the low income elderly and single parents (the latter are actively demonised by many governments as if it was common knowledge that nobody in her right mind would choose the status) Sweden seems to provide the author's template, and he is not optimistic that a private market can supply much that is useful. (Although cities in general do it far better, compared to pointedly solo-inhospitable suburbs). Not many informed people would regard a call that involves ramping public spending as terribly realistic, but Klinenberg is probably correct on two counts: that infrastructure (housing) has a net positive public payoff, and that the democratically powerful baby-boom generation will soon if not now regard such policy change as in its own self interest. Unfortunately this cohort will probably not pick up the bill.
Eric Klinenberg
By skepticsalamander on 11th April 2022, 06:25 AM
Very intriguing. Thanks for the review.
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