Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology at New York University and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (The Penguin Press).
This week, Statistics Canada reported a startling demographic transformation: For the first time in Canadian history, one-person households are the single most common household type, more prevalent than living with a romantic partner, roommates or parents.
Going solo, once unusual and stigmatized, is now typical. For an increasing number of young people, it's even prized. And not just in Canada – living alone is a global trend.
What happened? And what does it mean?
I spent years asking these questions, while working on a massive sociological study of what I consider the greatest modern social change that we've failed to name or identify. The rise of living alone shapes the way we spend our days and nights. It affects our intimate relationships, our families and our communities. It transforms the marketplace. It alters the ways we live and die.
Here's what I found.
The main reason people live alone today is because they can afford it. Generations ago, few people had the means to go solo. Families formed to pool resources, which they used to feed, shelter and protect each other. But two things – the welfare state and the market economy – combined to generate unprecedented levels of personal security.
And how did people use their new-found affluence? They got places of their own.
Of course, there are all kinds of things that people can afford but choose not to do or purchase. So what's so appealing about living alone?
For young professionals, who are delaying marriage into their late 20s or 30s and taking even longer to have children, it's a way to achieve adulthood. They see getting a place of their own as a mark of distinction, separating them from peers who live with roommates or family. For middle-aged people, living alone has real value immediately after a divorce or a breakup, when they want time and space to build a new life. Older people often start living alone after the death of their spouse. They're not exactly choosing to go solo, but they prefer it to their other options – including the one their predecessors felt obliged to do: moving in with their children.
Affluence is only part of the story. The other major social change that makes living alone possible is the rising status of women. Beginning in the mid-20th century, women in open societies gained control over their own lives and bodies, and won access to the paid labour market, too. Once that happened, the age of first marriage began increasing, because women no longer needed a husband to make ends meet. The divorce rate rose, because women were no longer trapped in abusive or unsatisfying relationships. Being single became okay.
There are a few other factors driving the rise of solo living. The communications revolution, beginning with the telephone and continuing to the Internet, means that one can be home, alone, and yet socially active. They're just a swipe or a message away from a face-to-face interaction.
Urbanization makes living alone a more social experience. In Manhattan, where I live, about 50 per cent of households have just one resident. But they're not distributed equally. In some neighbourhoods, solo dwellers make up 60 per cent or 70 per cent of all households. People move into these places to live alone, together, and they have ample options to meet others in local third places, such as restaurants, bars, cafés and gyms.
Does living alone make people lonely and isolated? Sometimes, but not necessarily. And the way you feel about this probably depends on whose sociology you trust more: Mad Men or Father Knows Best. Going solo probably isn't a great idea for people who struggle with depression and loneliness. Then again, neither is living with a romantic partner with whom they aren't getting along. As countless people told me in my interviews, there's nothing lonelier than living with the wrong person.
There is one group for whom living alone can be especially dangerous: older people, particularly those who are frail, depressed, or poor. For them, living alone can quickly turn into being alone, then being isolated and feeling lonely.
This is an issue that deserves far more attention. Again, it's not always a problem. But when things go wrong, they go wrong quickly, and aging alone can make it difficult to get help.
Today, an increasing number of countries are developing new programs to address this issue. In Sweden, local governments are experimenting with co-housing projects that allow older singles to live in buildings with social programs and shared amenities. In Singapore, "dual-key" apartment complexes allow for aging people to live alone, adjacent to their children and grandchildren. But even these countries are far from capable of meeting the needs of this expanding population. There's much more work to do.
Inevitably, when there's a social change of this magnitude, some political officials and cultural critics will believe that what's new is a problem and propose ways to reverse the trend. But when it comes to going solo, this is a losing strategy.
Instead of trying to persuade people to live together, we'd all be better off accepting that going solo is a new norm and doing whatever we can to make it a safer, healthier and more social experience.