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The numbers tell the story. In 1950, 22% of American adults were single. 4 million lived alone. They accounted for 9% of all households.
Fast-forward to today. More than 50% of American adults are single. 31 million, about one out of every seven, live alone. They make up 28% of all households.
These so-called "singletons" are the focus of a new book by Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, Going Solo– the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Going Alone. Well, from all those numbers, it's obvious something's happening. What?
Well, my view is that this is the biggest social change of the last 50 or 60 years that we have failed to name or identify. It's not just that so many Americans are unmarried, which is something we've talked about, but that people are living alone and for long stretches of their lives.
But so many people get there in different ways.
There are people just starting out, finishing college and living on their own, people who are perhaps just divorced and, perhaps, didn't intend to ever live alone but find that they are, people who are widowed, and of course, a group of people who are living alone and liking it. With all these different roads to getting there, is there anything that we can say about this very diverse group of people?
Absolutely. One thing we can say is that people who live alone are opting to do so. Now they might not aspire to be on their own. But they all have other choices available to them, really regardless of what age they are.
So for instance, you can go to craigslist and find roommates. Most people have some family members they could live with, parents or children. There are all sorts of institutional homes available to elderly people.
100 years ago, even 60 years ago, that's how we would have lived. But today, we don't. People are opting to go alone.
Is this something that only rich societies can aspire to? When you get up to that scale, one out of every four households, just one person– I was thinking of perhaps a Manhattan apartment building with 150 studio apartments in it. That's 150 refrigerators, 150 microwave ovens, 150 televisions. This isn't something that every country can pull off.
That's right. In fact, you see very little living alone in poor nations or in poor neighborhoods. On the other hand, there are some affluent societies where virtually no one lives alone, for instance, Saudi Arabia. One big difference in a place like Saudi Arabia is that women don't have the kind of independence they have in the United States or in other countries where there's high levels of living alone. So there's a cultural side to this as well as an economic one.
Has the United States adjusted? This may be something where the numbers and individual choice is way out ahead of supermarkets, the way we build the places where we live, the laws that we use to govern it. It may have outpaced the arrangements we make around this part of our lives.
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I think it has. I think this is a transformation that we haven't fully come to terms with. We haven't had a language for coming to terms with it, also.
Right now, 27% of US households are one-person households. But in cities, the numbers are far higher than that. Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, these are places where more than 40% of all households have just one person. And in Manhattan, where I live, and Washington, DC, it's almost half of all households.
Cities are largely not equipped for this kind of situation. And I think we have a lot of adjusting to do.
Or cities are uniquely equipped for that situation by creating a way of life where it's possible to live alone without feeling isolated, lonely, and so on.
Well, cities are better equipped than other places. And you're right. It's the interdependence of people who live in cities that makes their independence possible.
So you can live alone in a city and not be alone for all the reasons you mentioned. At the same time, especially as our society ages and when the boomer generation begins to age alone, we will find that our housing is not quite up to the challenge of giving people what they want, which is a place of their own, if they can't have their right partner, but also connection to other people and to all kinds of care and support. We have a long ways to go there.
Well, as you mentioned, the people turning 70 are going to break like a tidal wave on this society. And it doesn't seem like we've really thought that through very much, have we?
I think that's right. We haven't. Now, I should say that people who live alone, whether they're 30, or 40, or 75, are actually more likely than people who are married to spend time with friends and with neighbors, to go out in the city and spend time and money in bars, and restaurants, and cafes. They're more likely to go to public events. They're even more likely to volunteer in civic organizations.
So we shouldn't get carried away with the idea that living alone means being isolated. But there are a lot of older people who are at risk of growing isolated if they don't have the right kinds of housing. And at the moment, we just haven't invested in that in the way that other nations have.
Well, in an earlier book, Heat Wave, you examined how it was that very living alone among a lot of low-income elderly that led to a terrible death toll during a tragic heat wave in Chicago in the 1990s. So could that be the downside of living by yourself?
It is the danger if we don't find ways to adjust. But the one thing I discovered in the course of writing this book is that the very vulnerable and isolated people do represent a small minority here, that for the most part, people who live alone are engaged in the world in ways that we don't appreciate. And I grew concerned, actually, that this kind of language we have for talking about our bowling alone, and our disconnection, the way we've grown too individualistic as a society has somehow misrecognized the ways in which we're actually connected with each other. So it's important to tell both sides of that story.
Well, implicit in a lot of the reporting you did for this book was this finding that we aren't totally sold on the idea yet, even though 28% of our households consist of one person.
That's right. And let's be clear. This is not the case against marriage. I'm not trying to persuade anyone that they should live alone.
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But I am trying to come to terms with the fact that so many people are opting to live alone when they have other options available to them. Again, they're not aspiring to it. But they're not going to settle with living with the wrong person in a way that they might have 50 years ago.
We'll continue this conversation online. In the meantime, the book is Going Solo. Eric Klinenberg, good to talk to you.
It's nice to be here. Thanks.