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The Rise of Solo Living

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 4, 2012 07:30 AM

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In The Guardian, Eric Klinenberg -- a professor of sociology at NYU, and the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone -- has a short article summarizing his book, along with interviews with a number of "singletons," some very distinguished, like the novelist Colm Toibin. In affluent countries, more and more people are living alone for more and more of their lives, whether it's because they don't marry, outlive a spouse, or simply choose to live alone. "In all these cases," Klinenberg writes, "living alone is something that each person, or family, experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact it is an increasingly common condition."

The number of people living alone has been rising for a long time, Klinenberg writes, and increasing even more in recent years. Here in the U.S., 27% of households are one-person. (In Sweden, it's 47%.) In America, the solo population is a mixture of middle-aged adults, elderly people, and young adults between 18 and 34. Five million young adults live alone, compared to 500,000 in 1950, and most "singletons" "cluster together in metropolitan areas." There are a few reasons for the rise in single living: greater prosperity, a social safety net which ameliorates many of the risks of living alone, and what Durkheim called "the cult of the individual." "Another driving force," Klinenberg says, "is the communications revolution, which has allowed people to experience the pleasures of social life even when they're living alone."

Conventional wisdom thinks of living alone as inherently lonely, but for young people, Klinenberg finds, living alone is often pretty great: "They use it as a way to invest time in their personal and professional growth." Sociologists and psychologists have been finding that "there's little evidence that the rise of living alone is responsible for making us lonely. Research shows that it's the quality, not the quantity of social interactions that best predicts loneliness. What matters is not whether we live alone, but whether we feel alone." Solitary young people are often adept at building vibrant social networks. For older people, living alone can be harder.

But what's most striking, Klinenberg says, is that living alone denies generalization: he is "convinced that the problems related to living alone should not define the condition, because the great majority of those who go solo have a more rich and varied experience." Make sure to read the short contributions from Toibin and others at The Guardian.

Bonus: "I'm Han Solo," a song from Kinect Star Wars Dance Party. "No Jabba to answer to, / Ain't a fixture in the palace zoo, no. / And since that carbonite's off me / I'm livin' life now that I'm free, yeah." Seriously, watch the video!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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