Author Eric Klinenberg ’93 discussed the growing trend of people living alone in a talk in Petteruti Lounge last night and urged his audience to be particularly aware of the phenomenon, since its largest increase is among young adults under the age of 35. Klinenberg, a professor of sociology, public policy and media, culture and communications at New York University, was promoting his new book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”
Klinenberg first developed an interest in the topic through the process of writing his previous work, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” The book analyzed the disastrously high mortality rate of the great heat wave of 1995 in Chicago. One of the most interesting things he found in the course of writing the book was the huge number of elderly people who were living alone when the heat wave occurred and thus died alone, he said. At the time, he thought of these people as “isolated” and “really vulnerable,” and saw their living situation as “a social problem that needed to be addressed,” he said in an interview with The Herald. This led him to begin research on a new book about people living alone in America.
When he began to conduct research, he quickly found that his initial premises were incorrect. This was not a phenomenon limited to Chicago – rather, “record numbers of people (were) living alone … more so than ever in human history,” he told The Herald.
He discovered this was not simply about “aging alone,” because middle-aged people and people under 35 were living alone in greater numbers than the elderly, Klinenberg said. In fact, most of these “singletons” were living alone by choice, and despite preconceptions, they were for the most part happy and even willing to pay a premium just for the ability to live alone.
Suddenly, a book originally entitled “Alone in America” became “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” – no longer a book about a social problem, but rather about a whole new realm of social possibility and the most important social experiment of the modern era.
Klinenberg said he attributes the sudden rise of living alone, a trend that has never been seen in our species, to fundamental changes in our modern society. While more affluent communities have the luxury of choosing how to live, Klinenberg also discovered a change in widows’ places of residence after their partners’ death. Prior to the past few centuries, approximately 80 percent of widows moved back in with their children or into assisted living, but now approximately 80 percent live alone.
The communications revolution has also been central to the ability of people to live alone successfully, he said. Now people can be alone and still be connected to ideas and voices in ways which were before never imaginable.
This phenomenon is by no means limited to the United States alone. Many countries, especially in Europe, have even higher rates of living alone than the U.S., he told The Herald. In Paris half of all households are singles, and in Stockholm numbers reach 60 percent. As well as having the fastest growing economies, China, India and Brazil have the fastest growing “singleton” populations, Klinenberg said.
Klinenberg told The Herald that “for you (as a Brown student), a big part of this book” is that the “biggest spike in living alone is young adults under the age of 35.” Coming from the era of the “divorce revolution,” many people of this demographic don’t see immediate marriage as the right path and often desire to take time to focus on careers and develop networks, he said. While there is still pressure, especially for women, to beat the biological clock, he said, there is now as never before the option to develop alone as professionals, as human beings and as ourselves.
Today’s environment and modern values – freedom, personal control, self-realization, solitude, connection- have encouraged people to live as they so choose. There is no longer such a “clear plan” or “right way to live,” and while many social scientists lament the end of a golden age, Klinenberg said this so-called golden age never actually existed. He said he dismisses fears of isolation, disconnectedness and destruction of marriage and traditional family as mere nostalgia.
Klinenberg said he has found that “singletons” are in fact more social than their counterparts. A clear distinction needs to be made between “living alone and being alone,” he said, because in our urban Internet age people are never really alone. With new communication technologies as tools along with an abundance of free time, the author said he found “singletons” actually more capable and more likely to be highly social then those living with others. It is our new “interdependence that allows us to be independent,” Klinenberg said. It is the great irony of the book that though it is about being alone, ultimately it is about the new ways in which people can come together.