Both proportionately and absolutely, more people in industrialized countries are living alone today than ever before, Eric Klinenberg asserts. This has been made possible, he says, by four primary factors: the massive entrance of women into the workplace; urbanization, which allows “singletons” to form interest-oriented social relationships to replace or supplement traditional family links; the spread and improvement in mass communications that both entertain and enable people to keep in touch with each other; and longer life spans.
Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University and editor of the Public Culture journal. In probing this subject, he leavens his copious array of statistics with dozens of anecdotes about individuals who live alone either by choice or by circumstance. In many cases, having a place of one’s own to retreat to is an unalloyed benefit, a step in the direction of self-determination and personal freedom; in others, it is a lonely and often perilous existence, the grim solitude before the grave.
Klinenberg doesn’t take sides. Having established the contours and likely continuation of this demographic trend, his focus is on its social and political implications. What does it mean for municipal planning? For single women and men who eventually may want to marry and/or have children? For old people who have lost their mates and/or the ability to care for themselves? For the environment? As with most situations in which there are competing interests, there is no one solution that satisfies all.
America, though a vigorous participant in this trend, is not at the forefront of it. According to Klinenberg’s figures, more than half of American adults are single and one out of every seven of these live alone—a total of around 35 million. The proportion is greater in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, where from 40 to 45 percent of adults live alone. Some of the most imaginative planning appears to be taking place in Sweden, where dwelling complexes and mixed communities have been designed to accommodate and socially enrich singletons of every age, from college students to seniors.
Given this phenomenon, what are we to do about it, if anything? Klinenberg concludes Going Solo with this proposition: “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together, we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?” This book is a catalog of possibilities.