Going Solo

By Eric Klinenberg

Why are so many people living alone today?

Because they can.

To unpack this: Today roughly half of all Americans are single, with just over a quarter living alone (“singletons”). These numbers have been rising sharply over the last sixty years. In this fascinating overview of the single-living phenomenon, Eric Klinenberg provides several different explanations for this “remarkable social experiment.” Today’s societies have a more advanced social safety net to care for people living alone; women have gained more wealth and power, allowing them the choice of going solo; advances in communications technology let us stay connected and socialize without being social on a more personal, shared level; more people are living in cities, which enable single lifestyles; people are living longer, meaning they are spending more time without partners who have predeceased them.

Aside from the last point mentioned, these factors don’t explain why people are choosing to live alone but only tell us why, all of a historical sudden, they now have the option. The reasons why they want to go solo are partly cultural – Klinenberg adverts to the tradition of American individualism – but since this is a global phenomenon such an explanation only goes so far. Instead, the bottom line is that it is more human nature to want, in Garbo’s famous line, to be alone.

So why are we living alone? Because (now) we can.

Critics have found much to complain about in these developments. Living alone goes against tradition. It is driven by selfishness and narcissism. It leads to unhappiness, poor health, dysfunctional families, and social breakdown. Against such conventional wisdom Klinenberg suggests that singletons are in fact healthy, happy, fulfilled individuals, living sustainable, environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Klinenberg’s case is, for the most part, convincing. And yet one still feels a tug toward a negative moral judgment, a sense of uneasiness about this blossoming of the Me Generation. The buzz words, for one thing, start to nag. We are opting out of marriage “because we cherish freedom, personal control, and our search for self-realization.” Modern urban living, according to the sociologist Georg Simmel allows us to “follow the laws of our inner nature – and this is what freedom is.” That direct equivalence between our human nature and freedom is key. Going solo is all about freedom, but freedom is a tricky value. Do “the laws of our inner nature” trump other laws and social conventions? Does our cherishing of freedom and our search for self-realization mean we eschew any sense of responsibility for others, or for society in general?

Klinenberg doesn’t think so, but the people he interviews tend to adopt a limited set of values. A singleton journalist named Phil lives alone because he “sees domestic tranquility as a means of developing his self-knowledge and, in turn, enhancing his creativity.” Another singleton named Miguel takes a more expansive page from the same playbook:

“I can’t really say right now that I have a close friend, or that I’m even looking to get a close friend. This particular experience that I’m involved with now [living alone] is giving me a chance to grow more as a man, to allow the man in me to mature more, in the total sense, and to become self-sufficient and of self-worth in my own right. What I need to do is to learn to become my own close friend and best friend, and to love myself, and feel self-worth and validation.”

Is loving oneself selfish or self-centered? On a basic level the charge sticks. One can’t help finding all of this freedom to care for oneself a bit off-putting, however understandable. One interviewee, a former drug-user, admits he doesn’t want to live with roommates because he needs to be responsible for himself: “I’m not antisocial, but I have a hard enough time with my own problems without other people’s problems.” Another interviewee, an elderly woman, breaks off a long-term relationship with a man her own age, who had even proposed to her, “when his health began to fail – not to be heartless, but because she didn’t want to become his caretaker as things spiraled downward.”

We can understand feeling this way, but then wonder what would happen if everyone acted like this: feeling that they have a hard enough time with their own problems (and who doesn’t?) without worrying about others. At what point does care of the self turn into merely “looking out for number one”? As Madonna once put it in song: “You deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on. / Second best is never enough, you’ll do much better baby on your own.” Was “Express Yourself” an anthem of liberation, a heartfelt feminist cry against the grim advice of “settling,” or just an entitled whine? It seems to me to have been a bit of both, and I wouldn’t want to downplay the dark side. It may be that living alone is truer to our nature and the inner laws that guide us, but freedom always comes at a price.

Review first published online August 1, 2016.

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