Going Solo

Americans are said to be individualistic, but that does not explain why, today, most Americans are single. Nor do the bromides about successful women who cannot find a man explain this phenomenon, despite magazine headlines. The main reason 28 percent of American households are single is money — having enough of it, that is. According to Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, most developed nations have high rates of unpartnered adults: Scandinavia and Japan outpace the U.S. with 40-45 percent and 30 percent of households, respectively. Globally, there was a 33 percent increase in solo living between 1996 and 2006. These numbers do not pertain to Third World countries, nor to Americans in poverty. Living alone is a middle- to upper-class luxury.

This is one of many fascinating and convincing arguments Klinenberg offers in this book, which weaves statistics with interviews of single Americans at every stage of life. Although sometimes flatfooted in his descriptions (one woman he interviews has “shoulder-length brown hair” and a “sweet but somewhat sinister smile”), Klinenberg makes rigorously researched sociology accessible and interesting, as he did in his previous book, Heat Wave. We are presented with a snapshot of decades: from twenty-five-year-olds in Brooklyn who play kickball on the “Non-Commital” team; thirty-something women happy on their own but worried about their biological clocks; middle-aged divorced men (going to seed without a wife to clean up after them) and their female counterparts who are content with not having to care for others (statistics do show that women fare better alone than men); and retirees who refuse to move in with the kids, who would place demands on their time.

Klinenberg isn’t just presenting figures: he is also making arguments about public policy. Single women tend to be progressive and thus could be a powerful special-interest group for Democrats. But it has proven difficult to organize them as a bloc, perhaps because  most prefer not to identify themselves as single. He discusses discrimination and structural hurdles such as health care and the higher price of living alone. He is so thorough, in fact, that I was surprised and disappointed that he never touched on the gay marriage movement, which might be said to go against this single-living trend and, by seeking for homosexuals the same rights as heterosexual married couples, might even be said to work against the political and economic interests of single people.

The subtitle makes clear Klinenberg’s initial approach to his topic — that being single would be a drag. He is perennially surprised at how happy and content are so many singletons he interviews, how “rich and varied” their experience. He concludes that single living is not a social problem — in fact, it is a “collective achievement” of the industrialized world. But Americans are underprepared to address the needs of singles, particularly the elderly. (In Sweden, by contrast, he finds examples of successful policies and resources for singles.)

The challenge of being solo, for those who are single and those who study them, is that most prefer not to be on their own, but that does not mean being alone is an unfortunate experience to be remedied. Klinenberg addresses this complicated tidal shift in American demographics with nuance and rigor, to the benefit of America’s new silent majority.