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The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone
by Eric Klinenberg
On a hot Monday night in June 2008, a long line of singletons queued around the side of the Kabuki cinema in San Francisco where Sasha Cagen and four of her friends had organised a special screening of Sex and the City. The Kabuki had agreed to show the film, provided all the cinema’s 500 seats were bought in advance. Four days after being announced on the five women’s social-networking pages, the event had sold out.
Cagen was unsurprised at the evening’s popularity. A few months earlier she had launched Quirkyalone — a manifesto for “singles...romantics, idealists and eccentrics” — and had swiftly realised that there were thousands of like-minded single souls in America. “When one quirkyalone finds another, Oohh la la, the earth shakes,” she remarked, delightedly.
American sociologist Eric Klinenberg tells Cagen’s story in this ground-breaking book to illustrate his argument that in the past 50 years an extraordinary shift has taken place in the western world. For the first time in history, he says, huge numbers of people are choosing to live alone, or “go solo”, as he puts it.
The statistics outlined in his book are dramatic: in America, where 50% of adults are single, one in seven is living alone. In the UK the proportion is even higher: almost 2.5m people between 45 and 64 live in one-person households, a 50% increase since the mid-1990s. The highest rates are found in Scandinavia. In Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, 40-45% of households are just one person.
According to Klinenberg, this is a huge social experiment, one whose future is very hard to read: “Our species has about 200,000 years of experience with collective living and only about 50 or 60 years with going solo.”
A professor of sociology, public policy and media, culture and communications at New York university, Klinenberg spent seven years conducting in-depth interviews with 300 people for his book, and came up with some surprising results. Most people, he says, believe that isolation is a boring, sad state and that singledom is simply a blip en route to the far more desirable state of coupledom. The way Klinenberg tells it, however, is that, far from being lonely saddos, the growing numbers of solo dwellers across the western world are convinced they are living on society’s sunlit uplands. They are more likely to eat out, take evening classes, exercise and volunteer for charities than are those who live with others — and they seem happier, too. They are single by choice.
One of Klinenberg’s case studies is Madeline, a 61-year-old technical writer from San Francisco who, like many of her friends, has been living alone for years. “By any objective measure we should be as depressed as hell,” she tells him. “What’s surprising is that I’m not and none of the women I know are. It’s almost one of the best times of my life. I have more friends now than I’ve ever had.” Madeline has used social-networking sites to build a network of folk who are always on tap. A site called Meetup helps her find people with whom to practise languages or debate politics; she finds dates on Craigslist. After a failed marriage and a failed relationship that lasted 12 years, she tells Klinenberg, she never wants to live with anyone again.
Klinenberg posits the theory that the extraordinary social shift he identifies started when western families became wealthy enough to buy houses in which children could have their own bedrooms instead of having to share with siblings or their parents. The taste for privacy acquired by these children continued when they went to university and, after, when they started jobs.
If people can afford to live alone, they do, he concludes. A rise in singledom is a “mark of distinction, not a social failure.” Indeed, so fashionable has singledom become that you can even buy a ring to publicly signal your single status — the turquoise and sterling silver Singelringen, designed by a Swede who grew up in Texas. Alongside this, movements are starting up to press for political rights for singletons.
Faced with this upheaval in ways of living, Klinenberg argues that governments must wake up to the policy changes that need to follow in its wake. Cities, he suggests should be redesigned with many more cooperative apartment buildings for both old and young. Here, too, Scandinavian countries are leading the way. The Fardknappen building in Stockholm, which has seven floors and 43 solo dwellings, also has a large kitchen and a bright dining room where 60 people eat nightly. Fardknappen also boasts a library, a television room, a computer room, a communal garden, a party room, an exercise room and even a carpentry room. Every six weeks the inhabitants, some as old as 85, take their turn with the chores.
Klinenberg himself, having lived alone for a period in his life, is now in a family with two young children. But, as he acknowledges, there may yet come a time in his life when going solo is again a preferred option for him, too. And this is the book’s Achilles heel; for however much this painstakingly researched, thought-provoking book proclaims these singletons’ contentment with their lives, I was left with a sense that both they and the author protest too much. It’s always tempting to overstate a thesis for the sake of a story or a neat sociological conclusion. Now and again in the book, however, we are given glimpses of a very different reality. Every year in Los Angeles, for instance, the county takes care of the people who die alone within its boundaries. On December 6, 2007, the ashes of 1,918 folk were consigned to the earth in LA in a mass burial. Besides the chaplain only 10 people — all county employees — attended the service. That doesn’t feel like a positive choice to me.
A seismic shift
You get a good idea of just how dramatic the change in solo living has been from comparing the figures for the last 60 or so years. Research in America shows that today 50% of adults are single, and that people who live alone (31m of them) make up 28% of all US households. Compare that to 1950, where only 22% of adults were single, and the 4m who lived alone accounted for just 9% of all American households.
One striking cultural change related to the rise of private bedrooms concerns the way child psychologists advise parents to help their infants sleep. For most of human history, mothers and infants slept together; today, the great majority of the world’s mothers and children still do. The biological anthropologist James McKenna, who directs the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at Notre Dame University, argues that in the process of evolution mothers developed an innate capacity to attend to the needs of their sleeping children, even when they themselves are in deep sleep. While many cultures have used cradles to support sleeping babies, the crib was not widely marketed to or used by middle-class families until the twentieth century. Initially, babies who slept in cribs were placed near their mothers, close to or right next to the family bed. But in late 1946 a pediatrician named Benjamin Spock published Th e Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, in which (among other things) he advised parents to place newborns in rooms of their own so that they could learn to sleep independently, while also giving Mom and Dad some privacy and peace.
It’s hard to measure the impact of a few lines in an advice book, but this, of course, was no ordinary publication. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care went on to sell more than 50 million copies in thirty-nine languages, placing it among the bestselling books of all time. By the 1950s, “Dr Spock” had become the modern world’s clear authority on child care and development, and his views on a great variety of issues — including sleep training for infants — commanded the attention of countless doctors and parents. In 2000, the chairwoman of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission was using her office to advise all parents to avoid sleeping with children under the age of two. And she did so with the full support of Dr Spock’s successors: “sleep scientists” and child psychologists whose views on the value of individuating sleeping infants could be extreme.
In the 1986 bestseller Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, for instance, Richard Ferber reports, “We know for a fact that people sleep better alone in bed.” Parents, he acknowledges, may be tempted to give in to their infants’ desires to be near them when they slumber, and some may even “feel this is in their children’s best interests.” But he believes they are mistaken: “Sleeping alone is an important part of his learning to be able to separate from you without anxiety and to see himself as an independent individual.” Ferber has tough words for parents who resist his advice: “If you find that you prefer to have your child in your bed, you should examine your own feelings very carefully,” since it’s possible that “instead of helping your child you are using him to avoid facing and solving your own problems… If these problems cannot be simply settled, then professional counselling may be required.” Some parents were indeed put off by the harshness of the “Ferber method,” but millions of others bought his books and steeled themselves for the experience of “Ferberizing” their children. In the process, they helped acculturate the next generation to the experience of being alone.
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