Living Alone

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.”

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11 Responses to “Living Alone”

  1. Linda McCullough Moore Says:

    I remember reading that in Puritan New England, people were not permitted to live alone (echoes of the Garden of Eden…). When someone was left alone by the death or dessertion of a housemate, a living mate would be assigned or you would be required to move in with another person or family.
    As someone who lives alone and adores solitude, I do not believe it is how we are designed to live. The almost unlimited freedom to define your daily life does not seem to me suited to fostering a servant spirit.
    On a more pedestrian level, if you live alone, you never see another person without going out of your way to make it happen. It’s exhausting.
    Living alone is quite lovely, but I do not think it is a very good thing.

  2. Gary M Says:

    Also having had the experience of living alone for the last six years, I would have to agree with Linda. Although I am very close to my daughters, grandchildren, in-laws, and many friends, there is a dimension that is missing. The depth of day to day intimacy, good and bad, demands more effort to reach out and to not be so self focused. It can be stressful at times, but it, in my opinion, it makes us more complete. I believe that the stats also indicate that married or attached individuals tend to live longer, too.
    Another disturbing trend related to this quest for independence and freedom, is that many couples are choosing not to have children.

    • Linda McCullough Moore Says:

      I’m interested in what sense Gary says living alone “makes us more complete”. With Valentine’s Day looming, I’m in the market for a little philosophical solace here.

      • Gary M Says:

        Sorry, Linda, not a whole lot of solace being offered here. I wasn’t very clear in my response. What I meant to say is that the daily interactions of living together, while challenging, do usually mold us into a more complete person. Ideally, we complement each other. Love the freedom of being alone and independent, but I also do sense a responsibility of caring for others.

      • Linda McCullough Moore Says:

        Gary, I would be happy to continue this exchange by email. My email is wazzup44@juno.com and I may be contacted there. I am a writer (for my sins) and I am doing some writing at the moment on this subject (men and women of a certain age (in my case 65) living alone) and would be interested in your thoughts for the piece I am writing. Thanks so much.

  3. Geoff Says:

    This article ignores the new technologies that are available. You can interact with many more people through Facebook etc than you ever could through normal human interaction. The quality of interaction may not be the same, but living alone no longer means that you are isolated. For elderly people who do not use Facebook, even a simple cellphone can keep them in touch where previously they would have been isolated. The cost of these things is really low. You can own a Tracfone for a month for the price of a few cups of coffee at Starbucks

  4. Fred Says:

    Living alone can work for some people very well and may not work for others. Living alone is not a good idea for people who get clinically depressed. On the other hand, it may work well for someone who has a hard time living with a roommate, but is not necessarily a recluse or hermit. Biblically, we see an allowance for both lifestyles, but living by yourself is much more seldom, e.g. John the Baptist and Elijah. The trend towards single living seems to be not just a desire for more independence and freedom, but certainly an indication of the higher living standard that we enjoy. I believe, and I could be wrong, that you won’t find very many people in Africa, excluding So. Africa, managing a single living lifestyle, as you do in N. America and Europe. But I believe that our higher standard of living allows us to divorce more easily and be more independent. But in the big picture, is this an advantage to our culture, or is it self destructive? Are we learning to work together through our difficulties and differences, or are we becoming more like C.S. Lewis’ image of hell in the Great Divorce?

  5. More on Living Alone « Timstafford's Blog Says:

    […] Last week I wrote about Eric Klinenberg’s NYTimes piece on living solo. Now, David Brooks has weighed in with an interesting assessment. […]

  6. Michael Says:

    Tim: I met you way back when when I was president of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship @ Berkeley and you came to one of the IVCF conferences I attended. I have been married for 33 years and have two successful children in their 20’s, both in their character and professionally.

    But I must say your posting here strikes me as rather dogmatic and lacking in nuance. I have read those same NYT articles you cite, but maybe reading Klinenberg’s book would also be advisable. Per living alone, let me offer just one example. I have a friend of 30 years who is a humanities professor. He is a confirmed bachelor who lives alone. He is very dedicated to his work and especially his students, and very involved in his church. It simply would not work for him to be married or even have a roommate given his workload and the time he puts into his students. He is far more involved in community and caring for others than many married people I know.

    Meanwhile, I have to wonder if you have read the recent Steve Jobs biography. His is a much more complex story than the typical NYT article would have one believe. I have been covering Silicon Valley in books and articles for some years now, so had that as a backdrop for the reading the biography. Your either/or option for him is not fair or legitimate. He is better understood, I would say, in the context of Howard Gardner’s “Creating Minds,” than what some church deacon might think of him.

    I think there is a danger for all of us if we get overly-ideological that we miss the nuances of people and the world and thus much of reality.

    • timstafford Says:

      You’re right, Michael. My only defense would be: how do you write about trends in a short blog post without losing nuance?

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