Sunday’s New York Times has a fascinating piece by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg. It begins with this startling statement: “More people live alone than at any other time in history.” It notes that in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., almost half of all households have just one occupant.
In a chart comparing nations, the most solo country of all is Sweden, where 47% live alone. At the bottom are India and Pakistan, where 3% of households have just one occupant. The U.S. and Canada are in the middle of that broad range, at 27%.
Klinenberg puts a rosy spin on the trend, noting that people who live alone aren’t necessarily lonely or isolated. In fact, he says, “living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.” He notes that “compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.” It’s true of older people too: “Single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers.”
We’re not necessarily becoming more solitary or isolated, then, but we are shedding obligations. When you live alone you can be as socially engaged as you wish—on your schedule and your terms.
When you share a living space, on the other hand, you have certain nagging obligations: to cleanliness, to schedule, to shared expenses… and perhaps also to shared meals and social times. Obviously marriage and family—which are equally in decline—obligate you much more deeply. Is there any doubt this is the environment where character and spirituality are formed?
It’s not a simple matter. Freedom and privacy are terrifically valuable, and our evolution from tribe to democracy is progress, I believe. Nevertheless, I feel some deep concerns over this trend. Libertarianism enthralls the right on certain issues and the left on certain other issues. (Economic liberty, gun-toting liberty, abortion liberty, sexual liberty.)There are good grounds for wanting to be left alone, especially by the government. But there are also good grounds for entering a covenant commitment, whether to people sharing your apartment, to a wife or husband or children, or even to the government formed by “we the people.”
Clearly, we’re moving in the general direction of “we the individualists.”