Going Solo: The Thrill of Living Alone

Going Solo author Eric Klinenberg photo by Rona Talcott Photography

In January, my article, “Single By Choice,” discussed the lives of single people who felt that having a long-term committed relationship just wasn’t for them. Many were completely happy living alone, and they were certainly not alone in feeling that way. Today, nearly half of the American population is currently single, and more people than ever before — 31 million — live on their own, making up 28 percent of all U.S. households.

The extraordinary rise in the number of people living alone is the subject of NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Going Solo, which was just released last week. In it, Klinenberg examines the reasons why so many people have come to live independently, and what’s more, he finds that for the most part, these ‘singletons’, as he calls them, are in fact thriving. His subjects cover a wide range: people who are single, divorced, separated and widowed; old and young; gay and straight; men and women. The one thing that unites them is that they all live alone. I spoke with Klinenberg in the course my reporting to learn more about who these singletons are and why they matter. An excerpt of that conversation follows.

JN: At the outset of your book, you write that you strove to move beyond your preconceived notions about people who live alone. I know that throughout the book, I was surprised at how your findings undermined common stereotypes about singles. For example, you write that families own more pets than singletons — debunking the cat lady theory. What other findings surprised you most?

EK: The pet thing was definitely something I didn’t know before I started the book. We also think of living alone a something that’s much more common among women, which it is, but in fact, among younger people, it’s men. That was a surprise. I was also surprised to learn that people who live alone spend more time with friends and neighbors than people who were married. Frankly, I was surprised at the sheer number of people who alive alone in the U.S. and around the world. When I started, I thought this was an American phenomenon, and I had no idea this was such a major international trend. The numbers of people who live alone is truly shocking.

And yet, living alone is an enormously common condition that many — if not most of us — will experience at some point in our lives. Certainly we all have someone in our family or friendship group who lives alone. The fact that so many people live alone means we all experience our lives differently, including our relationships, because there are viable alternatives now if we want to get out. That hasn’t always been true. The rise of living alone has generated a lot of opportunities for different ways of living, and also generated a lot of challenges. It seems to me that it’s the biggest social change that we haven’t quite grappled with. For me, when I see an issue that everyone experiences as a private matter, even though it’s widely and publicly shared, then that’s a great occasion for research and writing. And that’s why I’m a sociologist.

Just over a decade ago, the country was despondent at the findings of Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, whose seminal book, Bowling Alone, contended that Americans had become disconnected and lacking in ‘social capital’. You argue in your book that much of this has changed. How?

Today most people who live alone don’t want to be home in their apartment by themselves. They go out into cities where they live and hang out and meet people. They’re not bowling alone; they’re doing things together. I think times have changed since Putnam wrote his book. Now you can have a really rich social life and be by yourself at the end of the day. With technology, you can be alone and also be social. A lot of people are spending time at home with others, talking on the phone, on Facebook, instant messaging, or Skype, and that’s changed the meaning of social life.

If anything, the problem in our time is that we’re over connected. We spend too much time engaged with each other and not enough time on our own. Huge numbers of people I spoke to talked about living alone as a way of finding productive solitude. It’s a way of getting a break from the constant rush of our hyper-connected lives.

One of the things I encountered when I worked on my story was parsing out the semantics of what ‘single’ actually meant. You use the word ‘singletons’ to describe people who live alone. How did you come to choose it?

It was hard issue in the book, and it was hard to come up with the title as well. Solos, singles, singulars; none of them really worked. I liked Going Solo as a title because it’s active. Anytime you use the word alone it sounds like lonely and it feels melancholy.

But I want to be clear about this: I’m not glib. I know as well as anyone the downside of being isolated, after all I wrote a book about hundreds of people who died in a heat wave, and spent a lot of time in places where people die alone regardless of the weather. I get the downside. But sociology doesn’t have to just be about social problems, it can be about social changes and how we live. Having spent a lot of time thinking about this I realized that the way we talk about this issue is partial and inadequate. When there’s a big social change it’s a mistake to just lament it and get nostalgic about how things used to. No matter that we say, you can’t just persuade people that that they should live together, stay in bad marriage or live with their parents. It’s ridiculous. So I wanted to be honest and serious and try to face up to the new world that we made.

Eric Klinenberg will be speaking at Northeastern University on February 9, at 6 p.m. in the Raytheon Amphitheatre. Info: northeastern.edu.