'Living alone is probably the biggest demographic change since the Baby Boom," says sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who explores this phenomenon in his cliche-shattering new book, "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone" (Penguin Press, $27.95). Forget those negative stereotypes about divorcees desperate to remarry and poverty-stricken senior citizens eating cat food: The vast majority of the more than 32 million Americans who now live alone do so because they want to, Klinenberg explained by telephone from his office at New York University. While the "singleton" phenomenon is overwhelmingly urban, he added, people who grew up in the suburbs and prefer to continue living there alone have begun to urge suburban communities to accommodate them with changes in the housing stock.
This book is the result of a seven-year research project. What surprised you about your findings?
There were so many things. When I started, I thought this was really common among older people, but I learned that people do it at all stages of life. I didn't know that the fastest-growing group of singletons is people under 35. There were 500,000 young adults living alone in 1950; there are 5 million today -- it's stunning. Another big surprise was, I assumed going into this that it was an American phenomenon, growing from our culture of self-reliance and individualism. Little did I know that we are laggards! People live alone wherever they can afford to, and strong welfare states make it possible for more people.
You say in the book that living alone is a collective achievement.
What I learned, and this was another big surprise, is that people live alone today because it's actually quite a social experience. Cities make it possible, and so do communications technologies. I'm pretty bullish about the new media. I don't see people using their smartphones at the expense of in-person contacts; the evidence I've seen is that people who are really active with the Internet and social media become more socially active face-to-face as well. There are exceptions: For a small but important minority, usually frail elderly men who are very poor or have mental illnesses, living alone can be isolating and dangerous. We need to do much more for them.
But your research shows that most older people prefer to live alone, correct?
Yes. A big reason that people can age alone today is that older people maintain their health and vitality longer than ever before; they're capable of taking care of themselves in many respects. When you talk to them, they will tell you that their integrity and sense of autonomy depend on their capacity to live alone. If they hit a situation where they have to move back in with their children or, worse, into a nursing home, this is an enormous blow to them. Very affluent Americans have a way to maintain their domestic independence while also getting terrific services in their buildings, by moving into assisted living facilities, but these are unbelievably expensive and can bankrupt even quite comfortable families. Here's an area where the U.S. could learn so much from Sweden and other countries where they have invested in housing that allows people to live alone but also to be connected.
Is living alone the new normal?
There's no evidence whatsoever that this is a reversible trend. Even during the economic downturn the numbers of people living alone have gone up. We're also seeing an enormous spike of living alone in nations with the fastest-developing economies: China, India and Brazil. What I observe is that people live alone whenever they can afford to.
What impact does that have on political and social institutions?
It's too early to really know. We have about 200,000 years of experience living in groups, and about 50 or 60 years of living alone, so we're just beginning to understand. But I want to emphasize that I approach this question in a very different way from most social scientists, who tend to see it as the fraying of social ties and who worry that we've grown lonely and dislocated. I think we're adapting in incredibly interesting ways, and I see this social experiment in living alone as enormously creative.