The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone
With eye-opening statistics, original data, and vivid portraits of people who live alone, renowned sociologist Eric Klinenberg upends conventional wisdom to deliver the definitive take on how the rise of going solo is transforming the American experience.
Klinenberg shows that most single dwellers—whether in their twenties or eighties—are deeply engaged in social and civic life. There's even evidence that people who live alone enjoy better mental health and have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles. Drawing on more than three hundred in-depth interviews, Klinenberg presents a revelatory examination of the most significant demographic shift since the baby boom and offers surprising insights on the benefits of this epochal change.
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ON SEPTEMBER 30, 2007, the Non-Committals won the championship of the Brooklyn Kickball Invitational Tournament, defeating Prison under the lights of Greenpoint’s McCarren Park. The teams were comprised mostly of young middle-class adults in their twenties and thirties who played regularly in a local league, but competitors came from as far as Providence, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Toronto. Today there are booming kickball clubs in Maui, Miami, Dallas, Denver, San Diego, and Seattle. The World Adult Kickball Association, which hosted seventy-two teams and 1,500 players at its 2009 Founders Cup in Las Vegas, calls the game “the new American pastime.” That’s clearly a misnomer, however, since the group has also helped organize leagues in England and India and is eagerly seeking additional outposts. It’s hard not to interpret the surprising popularity of this childhood game as a symbol of the historically new life stage that sociologists call second adolescence. This period of prolonged development on the path to adulthood is growing increasingly common in affluent nations, where young adults are growing ever more committed to Non-Committal Living, as the Brooklyn champs would put it. In Chicago, for instance, one organization’s ads for a kickball league claim, “Recess was never this much fun!” and its campaign for a dodgeball league—what else?—promises, “As an adult you can relive the glory days on the playground!” In some places, games reproduce the college fraternity experience as well as elementary school days. During “sloshball” competitions, ESPN reports, players must hold a beer at all times and runners cannot advance until they shotgun a beer. In New York City, games are played in the epicenter of Brooklyn hipster culture, and instead of engaging in frat house behavior, participants act like natives, going straight from the ball field to the barroom, where they’ll listen to indy rock bands till early the next day. At season’s end they gather in Greenpoint for the Kickball Prom. Playing children’s games on weekends is not the only way that today’s young adults revisit adolescence. They stay in school longer than did previous generations, knowing that the job market rewards them for being both well trained and flexible, and guessing that it’s unwise to commit too hastily to a career path or to a corporation that will not commit to them. They delay marriage and having children and spend years engaging in casual sex or serial dating, often remaining skeptical that an intimate relationship can last a lifetime. They chat on instant message and social network sites, play video games, share music online.
Those younger than twenty-five even move back in with their families, frequently enough to be labeled the “boomerang generation” by journalists and sociologists.
But viewed historically, the “boomerang” label is undeserved, as is the view that by indulging in a second adolescence young adults are neglecting to grow up. “It is widely believed that young adults are more likely to live with their parents now than ever before,” writes sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. But in fact, he notes, compared to previous generations they are far more likely to establish themselves in a home of their own. While it’s true that the prevalence of people ages twenty-five to thirty-four living with their parents has gone up since 1960, the increase has been modest: from 11 percent to 14 percent for men, and from 7 percent to 8 percent for women. The more significant change in the culture of young adults involves breaking away from their family home. Consider, for instance, that only 1 percent of people ages eighteen to twenty-nine lived alone in 1950, while 7 percent do today, or that 11 percent of people ages twenty to twenty-nine lived apart from their parents back then, whereas today more than 40 percent do. (Not all of them live alone, but leaving home is a necessary condition for doing so.). “The increase in this type of living arrangement has grown astonishingly since 1970,” observe demographers Elizabeth Fussell and Frank Furstenberg Jr., marking “a new sort of independence from family with significant social meaning.” This is an understatement. In recent decades a growing number of twenty- and thirtysomethings have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood. In the large urban areas where it is most common, many young professionals see having one’s own home as a mark of distinction and view living with roommates or parents as undesirable at best. Living alone offers several advantages: It grants sexual freedom and facilitates experimentation. It gives time to mature, develop, and search for true romantic love. It liberates young adults from difficult roommates, including good friends who turn out to be better friends when they are not always in the next room. It enables them to socialize when and how they want to, and to focus on themselves as much as they need.
Why did the practice of living alone grow so popular among young adults, and how did it turn from a sign of social failure to a rite of passage and a reward for success? To answer these questions we need to look more closely at how the public life of cities and, more specifically, the subculture of singles encouraged new forms of individualism. For the urban bohemians who first experimented with solo living in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village did something that they hadn’t intended:
They pioneered a lifestyle whose broad appeal would ultimately bring it into the mainstream. We also need to examine the private lives of families, because changes in the way we relate to one another inside the home have led more of us to grow comfortable in a place of our own. First, though, we should step back to see what we might call the “old” cult of the individual, if only to establish how different it is from the individualism we find in cities today.
THE CONTEMPORARY VIEW of living alone as a productive experience grew out of a rich historical legacy. The monastic tradition, which has roots in ancient China, Egypt, and Syria, valorized asceticism as a path to knowledge and a meaningful life. According to monastic teachings, separating from society is the most powerful way to get closer to the divine. This is why the fourth-century hermit Abba Moses issued his famous instruction: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” In practice, however, few hermits were true solitaries. Whether in the desert or on the outskirts of a town, they typically lived in settlements shared by other men and congregated with them for a variety of purposes. The historian Peter Brown writes that in Egypt, where “the theory and practice of ascetic life reached its highest pitch of articulate-ness and sophistication . . . [g]roups had to reproduce exactly, on the fringe of the desert, the closed-in, embattled aspect of the fortified villages”; he notes further that “the monastery of Pachomius was called quite simply The Village.” In ancient China, writes the Asia scholar Aat Vervoorn, the earliest versions of eremitism were secular and philosophical rather than religious, and the lifestyle involved not renouncing society so much as “a lack of regard for those things of the world that are common objects of human action, such as wealth, power, and fame.”6 Over the centuries, these traditions have evolved and mutated as much as they have traveled. Today we find traces of the old cult of the individual in romantic ideals that emphasize solitude as a return to nature, in the spirit of Thoreau or John Muir; as a path to the sacred, as for Thomas Merton or Hesse’s Siddhartha; or, as the psychologist Anthony Storr put it, as a return to the creative self. These are all influential perspectives, and they no doubt fed the stream of ideas that gave rise to the belief that living alone is important for becoming an autonomous adult. But they also share a decidedly antiurban and antisocial bias, and are in many ways antithetical to the practice of living alone in the city. To find the sources of our contemporary ways of settling down, we must look beyond the traditions of the monastery and toward those of the modern metropolis.
“The metropolis,” wrote the German sociologist Georg Simmel,“ assures the individual of a type and degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other circumstances.” Simmel was born in Berlin in 1858, when the population was about 460,000, and during his lifetime he witnessed it grow to more than 2 million people. Many of his contemporaries, particularly those who participated in the romanticist movement against modernity, lamented the moral and cultural changes wrought by urbanization. But Simmel doubted that the less urban life was more virtuous or meaningful. He rebuked those, like Nietzsche and Ruskin, who believed that cities crushed the individual spirit. “Small-town life,” he argued, “imposed such limits upon the movements of the individual in his relationships with the outside world and on his inner independence and differentiation that the modern person could not even breathe under such conditions.” The city, by contrast, offered possibilities for “social evolution,” because in it “the individual’s horizon is enlarged” and he “gains a freedom of movement beyond the first jealous delimitation” of the family or the religious community. In the city, the individual could participate in any of the emerging social groups, or subcultures, that matched his preferences and interests. What evolved from this new social landscape, Simmel claimed, was a new, “metropolitan type” of individual, with a rational and intellectual orientation to the world, a deep psychological life, and a cool, blasé attitude that he designated as “reserve.” City dwellers were hardly inhibited. On the contrary, Simmel insisted that modern urban culture liberated residents and allowed them to cultivate the very parts of themselves that the village had repressed. “Individual freedom,” he wrote, “is not only to be understood in the negative sense as mere freedom of movement and emancipation from prejudices and philistinism. Its essential characteristic is rather to be found in the fact that the particularity and incomparability which ultimately every person possesses is actually expressed, giving form to life . . . We follow the laws of our inner nature—and this is what freedom is.” For city dwellers at the turn of the twentieth century, being liberated from the tight grip of the family, the constraints of religious traditions, and the surveilling eyes of a small-town community was exhilarating. It’s often argued that modern urban culture helped usher in an era of great creativity and aesthetic experimentation, giving rise to avant-garde movements such as surrealism, Dadaism, and the Bauhaus. But modern cities induced extraordinary innovations in what Simmel called the everyday techniques of living, too, because they rewarded residents who gave up old habits and acculturated to the new social scene. While the aesthetes declared that they were treating “art as life,” even the less eccentric urbanites began to experience life as art, remaking themselves, their communities, and their homes to suit their “inner natures,” pushing back against “the concrete institutions” that the city and the state were already rebuilding.
From today’s perspective, the act of taking a place of one’s own does not appear especially “peculiar” or “extreme” (to use Simmel’s terms), but at the turn of the century it was a bold and provocative way to use one’s social liberties. Not that young single adults were uncommon in the late nineteenth century, when young workers were abandoning their native towns to seek jobs in metropolitan areas. In 1890, the proportion of young single men (ages fifteen to thirty-four) living in large American cities was higher than it would be until about 1990, and at the time the average age of first marriage was also higher than it would be for another century, roughly twenty-six for American men and twenty-two for American women. The fact that these are averages means that many delayed marriage until they were even older. In 1900, fully one-third of all native-born American white men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four were single, as were half of all native white men that age in New York City. Hardly any of these bachelors lived alone, however. About half of all unmarried men, and a greater proportion of unmarried women, lived with their family (just as they do in parts of Southern Europe and in many developing nations today). Nearly all of those who left their family home to work in a distant neighborhood or city rented a room from another family or, to the growing dismay of social workers and sociologists, moved into a rooming house.
ROOMING HOUSES, which were known as “plain hotels for plain people,” were precursors to the small, private apartments that would ultimately house single urban residents. They were popular among people in skilled trades who made a steady but modest income and wanted to escape surveillance, but their abundance and accessibility made them attractive for many migrants to the city. “Hotel life,” writes the architectural historian Paul Groth, could be “virtually untouched by the social contract and tacit supervision of life found in a family house or apartment unit shared with a group.” This fact aroused great anxiety among moral reformers of all stripes, who feared that living outside a family home would lead to isolation and a host of social problems. Solo living was said to be dangerous for men because it made them selfish and vulnerable to wanton impulses, and for women because it made them lonely, hysterical, and depressed. As early as 1856, the poet Walt Whitman authored “Wicked Architecture,” an essay in which he listed the personal consequences of boardinghouse life as: “listlessness; emptiness; sloth; nerves; dyspepsia; flirtations; prodigality; vain show; perhaps—often, might we not say?—immorality, nay, infamy.” Fifty years later, a well-known Protestant minister warned that the rooming house system was “stretching out its arms like an octopus to catch the unwary soul.” And in his classic 1929 field study The Gold Coast and the Slum, University of Chicago sociologist Harvey Zorbaugh lamented that the typical rooming house has “no dining room, no parlor, no common meeting place. Few acquaintanceships spring up in a rooming-house . . . The keeper of the rooming-house has no personal contact with, or interest in, his roomers.” Along with many of his contemporaries in the social sciences, Zorbaugh argued that living without a domestic partner was one of the key urban conditions that generated “personal disorganization” and “social anomie.” To illustrate the point, he offered statistics that showed a concentration of suicides in the neighborhoods where boardinghouses were common as well as a series of horrific stories from the “world of furnished rooms.” In the story of a “charity girl,” a young woman from Emporia, Kansas, moves into a rooming house when she arrives in Chicago at age twenty-two to attend music school. She reports that it is impossible to make friends there, and within a few months of her arrival “ ‘my loneliness amounted almost to desperation.’ ” The “charity girl” endures a series of horrors. Her mother dies. Her father won’t talk to her because she has moved to the city. Her music teacher blithely tells her she’s not good enough to really make it. And she has no one to comfort her, not even the other souls who share her home. “ ‘I began to look at my life in Chicago. What was there in it, after all? My music was gone. I had neither family nor friends.’ ” For Zorbaugh, this was a parable about the dangers of urbanization. “ ‘The city is like that,’ ” he quoted her as saying, and added his own conclusion: “Such complete anonymity could be found nowhere but in the city of today, and nowhere in the city save in the rooming-house.”13 Some city dwellers relished this anonymity, however, because it liberated them to live by their own “inner laws.” In another classic study from the University of Chicago, The Ghetto, sociologist Louis Wirth explained that in the early twentieth century a number of Jewish hotels popped up in Chicago to house Jews who wanted to escape the confines of their local community. During the same era in New York City, writes one historian, “the first full-blown generation of American moderns” moved to Greenwich Village so they could enjoy “life without a father” (to use Gertrude Stein’s phrase) and forge “a community of dissidents who prided themselves on living a life apart.” Villagers took up a great variety of personal, political, and aesthetic causes. But, as Ross Wetzsteon argues in his neighborhood history Republic of Dreams, they ere motivated by one common aspiration: “the liberated self.”
The Village of the early twentieth century was famous for its intellectuals, artists, activists, and eccentrics, including celebrated figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Emma Goldman, Eugene O’Neill, Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Lippmann, Claude McKay, and Eleanor Roosevelt. But even the more ordinary Villagers enjoyed the freedoms available in what the historian Christine Stansell calls “the cradle of liberated personae,” a place where “closeted identities can come out of their hiding places” and all variety of individuals could “foster more fully realized selves.” Women’s ability to find work in the paid labor market was a key part of this self-actualization, because it gave them a degree of financial autonomy, as well as a way to break out of the domestic sphere. The community, Stansell continues, nurtured “a population of single women supporting themselves outside traditional family situations . . . Ladies went to work by themselves every day. They rode streetcars alone,” and their discussions focused “on how women might live outside traditional domestic roles.” Whether in New York, Chicago, London, or Paris, experiments like these spawned a new story line in the day’s novels. “The pleasures and dangers of being alone in the city excited the imagination of female contemporaries,” writes Judith Walkowitz. “Heroines,” adds Stansell, “lit by the high ambitions of their generation, set out to prove themselves in the world, rejecting romantic love, determined to find new stories for themselves beyond marriage.”
The bohemian culture of the Village was not entirely due to the spirit of its residents. The neighborhood’s spatial arrangements—its narrow, windy streets; its intimate cafés, salons, and saloons; its great central gathering place, Washington Square Park—provided both privacy for personal experimentation and a zone for self-expression and public display. At the beginning of the twentieth century the area had
a great number of tenement buildings that warehoused large families. But over the next few decades builders developed an ample supply of small, relatively inexpensive residential units in rooming houses and apartment buildings, which enabled the modern men and women of “the place where everything happens first” to live alone. In 1917, the year that Marcel Duchamp and friends ascended the Washington Square Arch and declared the area “a free and independent republic,” the writer Anna Alice Chapin identified a building nearby as “the first all-bachelor apartment house erected in town. It is appropriately called ‘the Benedick’ [from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing], after a certain young man who scoffed at matrimony.” By the 1920s developers were converting single-family houses and tenements into one- or two-room apartments, and women as well as men rushed to fill them. The sources of this demand are not hard to identify. Between 1920 and 1930, the population of children under age fourteen in the Village dropped by around 50 percent. By 1930, about half of the adult men in the Village were unmarried, as were 40 percent of all women. These changes were consistent with the general population trends for New York City, but they happened faster in the Village, and in more exaggerated fashion. In a decade, the community of families had turned into an urban enclave for adults, particularly for singles. A growing vanguard lived alone, and the rest of the city would soon follow its lead. Like the bohemians, gay men at the turn of the twentieth century also moved to cities and sought housing that would free them from supervision and social control. The historian George Chauncey has documented how gay friends in New York City helped each other identify places where landlords and neighbors were tolerant, recruiting other gay men for adjoining units, lest someone more judgmental and intrusive move in. Rooming houses were especially attractive, not only because they maintained a culture of privacy, but also because they allowed residents to pay by the day or week, which made them easy to abandon if something went wrong. Chauncey reports that certain hotel residences in Manhattan attracted large numbers of gay men, as did the apartment houses where, as one analyst put it, “your neighbor is just a number on the door.” Entire neighborhoods—in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, the East Fifties and Sixties—became gay enclaves, organized around bars, cafeterias, cheap restaurants, literary societies, and community centers that helped men support each other in the quest to define themselves. By the 1920s, these areas had established reputations as places where people of all sexual persuasions could come together to enjoy their autonomy, without worrying too much about whether anyone else was watching.
In fact, before long, people went to New York City’s bohemian, bachelor, and gay neighborhoods precisely so that they could watch, if not participate in, their distinctive subcultural scenes. It is well known that during the Harlem Renaissance middle-class whites traveled uptown for a taste of the neighborhood’s exotic jazz clubs and intoxicating nightlife; so too did they go downtown to sample the Village’s bohemian offerings. The Village attracted visitors at all hours, but at night its busy streets and buzzing cultural institutions transformed the area into a theater of the new, modern lifestyle, and an adventuresome audience from the city and beyond flocked to the site. This is precisely what happens when a city’s public life is robust: Strangers meet in a densely packed, diverse social environment. Th estage and street merge. A new public geography develops. And then, as Richard Sennett argues in The Fall of Public Man, “the imaginative limits of a person’s consciousness [a]re expanded . . . because the imagination of what is real, and therefore believable, is not tied down to a verification of what is routinely felt by the self.” The idea that one could live quite socially while keeping a place of one’s own shifts from being strange and unimaginable to being tantalizing and concrete.
Just as white middle-class exposure to African American music, dance, art, and literature during the Harlem Renaissance began to nudge blacks from the margins to the mainstream of U.S. popular culture, so too did the middle-class engagement with the world of bachelors and bohemians plant the seeds for the slow growth of new ideals about how to live. This is not to say that great numbers of Americans, or even New Yorkers, suddenly abandoned their aspirations to settle down in a traditional relationship. In fact, between the 1920s and the 1950s the dominant practice among young adults involved making a quick and early start to domestic life, and the average age of first marriage dropped by about two years for men (from 24.6 to 22.8) and one year for women (from 21.2 to 20.3). But during those same decades an alternative lifestyle—modern, independent, and single—was sprouting up in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. “New Women,” as the most liberated called themselves, were at the forefront of the change. “THE SINGLE WOMAN, far from being a creature to be pitied and patronized, is emerging as the newest glamour girl of our times . . . She is engaging because she lives by her wits. She supports herself. She has had to sharpen her personality and mental resources to a glitter in order to survive in a competitive world and the sharpening looks good. Economically, she is a dream. She is not a parasite, a dependent, a scrounger, a sponger or a bum. She is a giver, not a taker, a winner and not a loser.” In '62, a forty-year-old named Helen Gurley Brown published these words in her slim, sensational bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. Brown, who went on to edit Cosmopolitan for more than three decades, had humble origins. She spent her early childhood in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, but moved to Los Angeles at age ten after her father died. She was raised by her mother; her family was poor, and her sister had polio. Brown, who supported them, developed a firsthand appreciation for the struggles and aspirations of working women in her generation. She attended a small business college, found clerical work in a talent agency, and shifted into advertising when she was hired as a secretary. She gradually moved up the ranks, becoming one of the industry’s most accomplished copywriters before branching out into journalism.
Sex and the Single Girl, which came out a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, was the kind of feminist tract that scandalized and alienated a great many feminists. For it was written not against what Friedan famously called “the problem with no name”—inequality of the sexes, generated through discrimination at home, in the courts, in politics, and in the workforce—but for women who felt oppressed by the overwhelming social pressure to settle down early, forgoing years of experimentation, growth, and pleasure to get a marriage license for a domestic life that they might not need or want. Brown insisted that young women should enjoy their best years without a husband. “A single woman’s biggest problem is coping with the people who are trying to marry her off !” she argued, while marriage should be “insurance for the worst years of your life.”
Brown’s book was “not a study on how to get married but how to stay single—in superlative style.” She offered her own life as Exhibit A. Sex and the Single Girl opens with Brown’s account of how, by delaying marriage until age thirty-seven, she wound up with a smart and sexy husband who worked in the movie business, two Mercedes in the driveway, and a big house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was not easy to maintain her autonomy, Brown admitted. During her twenties and early thirties she watched her contemporaries rush into wedlock, often settling for men whose flaws were readily apparent. “Although many’s the time I was sure I would die alone in my spinster’s bed, I could never bring myself to marry just to get married.” Instead, she worked doggedly to advance in her career. She developed a fierce aggression and a unique style that she was willing to “get out in the open.” None of this, according to Brown, required great beauty, wealth, or a high-voltage personality. It simply demanded guts, conviction, and the fortitude to live alone.
Brown did mean alone. “Roommates,” she insisted, “are for sorority girls. You need an apartment alone even if it’s over a garage.” The benefits of going solo were innumerable. With a home of one’s own, a single woman could have time and space to cultivate her self without the social pressure of family or friends. She could work late without worrying anyone, “furnish her mind” through reading, change her appearance as she saw fit. Most of all, she gained privacy, and with that the freedom to experience a more adventurous, libidinous life. The single girl “has a better sex life than most of her married friends,” Brown claimed (albeit without providing any evidence). “She need never be bored with one man per lifetime. Her choice of partners is endless and they seek her.” The private apartment, writes the literature scholar Sharon Marcus, became a powerful symbol of the new urban culture during the 1960s because it “offered the single girl an eroticized arena in which to exercise her creativity and promote her own creative comforts.” But few single women expected to maintain this arena for long. Brown, after all, proposed living alone not as a means to subverting marriage but rather as a means to improving it. “Serving time as a single woman,” she counseled, “can give you the foundation for a better marriage if you finally go that route.” It could also prepare a modern woman for the possibility that, even if she married, she would one day find herself on her own again, since “a man can leave a woman at fifty (though it may cost him some dough) as surely as you can leave dishes in the sink.” Indeed, when Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl, a nascent cultural movement was pushing men to do precisely this, promoting a new bachelor lifestyle that repudiated marriage and family altogether. The movement had an outlet in Playboy magazine, an iconic leader in Hugh Hefner, its publisher and editor, and a totem in the bunny ears that signaled men’s endorsement of a new way of living. “I don’t want my editors marrying anyone and getting a lot of foolish notions in their heads about ‘togetherness,’ home, family, and all that jazz,” said Hefner. His magazine did everything possible to discourage readers from getting those notions, too.
Playboy condemned conventional domestic life but embraced a new kind of masculine domesticity. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s,” writes Bill Osgerby in the Journal of Design History, “Playboy spotlighted a series of luxurious ‘Playboy Pads’—both actual buildings and fantasy blueprints—tailored to the outlook and tastes of the hip ‘man about town.’ ” In The Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the magazine’s ideological project involved “reclaiming the indoors as a realm for masculine pleasure.” Its not so subtle message to readers: Abandon, all ye who open these pages, your suburban home, your station wagon, your controlling wife. Return to the great city. Get a place of your own and fill it with modern luxuries: fine liquor, modern art, hip clothing, a stereo, leather furniture, a king-size bed, and the greatest pleasure of all—beautiful, available women. “Playboy loved women,” Ehrenreich writes. “Large-breasted, longlegged young women, anyway—and it hated wives.” Marilyn Monroe graced the cover of its first issue, which also included an attack on alimony and a story about “Miss Gold Digger of 1953.” Hundreds, eventually thousands of women posed nude for its centerfold spreads and photo features. Producers of high-end men’s products bought ad space so that their brands would be associated with the lifestyle Hefner advocated.
Real women were welcome in a playboy’s private home, particularly if they were the “fun-loving,” nubile, liberated kind that the magazine celebrated. Hefner surrounded himself with “bunnies,” first in a Chicago apartment and eventually in the famous Los Angeles mansion, and he took on several lovers at a time. His policy was always straightforward: Women could visit, spend a night or many more. But they shouldn’t get too comfortable, seek emotional commitment, or expect him to settle down. His bed may have been open, but in the end it was his alone.
NOT THAT HE HAD TO MAKE IT. By the 1970s both sexes benefited from the dramatic expansion of the service economy, including home cleaning, child care, elder care, food delivery, even laundry. Drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the sociologist Susan Thistle has shown that, since the 1970s, “the conversion of women’s domestic tasks into work done for pay has . . . been the area of greatest job growth.” There’s a simple reason for this: Record numbers of women have been moving into the paid labor market. In 1950, about one in three of all adult women participated in the civilian labor market; by 1980, more than one half did.
Women with more education entered the workplace at an even faster rate. Employment for those who had completed some college went from 51 percent to 67 percent during the 1970s, and from 61 percent to 74 percent among those who had earned a college degree. As these women left their invisible jobs as uncompensated domestic workers they generated new demand for other people, mainly women, who could replace them. The personal services industry has grown ever since.
Although women’s wages lagged behind men’s (and still do), their rapid entry into the paid labor market made it far easier for them to achieve independence than ever before. The average age of first marriage, which rose slowly during the 1960s, jumped considerably in the 1970s, from twenty-one to twenty-two for women and from twenty-three to twenty-five for men. Adults didn’t only delay marriage during the tumultuous decade, they also terminated it at unprecedented rates. In 1970, about 700,000 American couples divorced, a high figure compared to the 393,000 divorces in 1960 and the 385,000 in 1950. But 1980 was unprecedented, with roughly 1.2 million divorces. Demographers calculated that the divorce rate had jumped 50 percent during the 1970s, and they marveled at the startling fact that 25 percent of all marriages that took place in 1970 had been terminated by 1977.
The nation had experienced a divorce revolution, and the transformation wasn’t due solely to women’s increased participation in the labor market. It was also fueled by an emerging moral code that placed one’s obligation to care for the self on par with, if not above, one’s commitment to family. “Beginning in the 1950s,” argues Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in The Divorce Culture, Americans “became more acutely conscious of their responsibility to attend to their own individual needs and interests . . . People began to judge the strength and ‘health’ of family bonds according to their capacity to promote individual fulfillment and personal growth,” rather than on more traditional measures, such as income, security, or class mobility. Scholars in Europe identified a similar shift. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that once women achieved economic independence, couples began to seek “pure relationships,” which are “free floating” and not anchored in traditional financial or social constraints. The modern marriage, he writes, “becomes more and more a relationship initiated for, and kept going for as long as, it delivers emotional satisfaction to be derived from close contact with another.” When it fails to do so, as marriage often does during hard times, individuals feel an obligation to justify sustaining it, because divorce is a readily available option. By the 1970s, more people began to act as if their quest for personal happiness—whether as a playboy, a liberated woman, or simply a “single”—trumped all other obligations. During that decade, writes David Sarasohn, “the freedom to hop from one relationship to the next was as essential as anything in the Bill of Rights.” Finding a place of one’s own was the best way to achieve it. During the 1960s and ’70s the housing market aided the search for autonomy, with inventory expanding much faster than the population, particularly in central cities, where middle-class families were fleeing.
The urban crisis, as it came to be known, proved itself an opportunity for unmarried adults seeking their own apartments in metropolitan settings. In most big cities, middle-class individuals could easily find affordable rental units, and as they clustered together in places of their own they forged neighborhood cultures organized around single life: Lincoln Park in Chicago. The Marina District in San Francisco. West Hollywood in Los Angeles. Belltown in Seattle. These weren’t bohemias or gay enclaves, but places for urban professionals, the young and never married as well as divorcees. They were full of apartment buildings, both new and newly renovated, to meet the needs of an increasingly individuated marketplace. Solo living was suddenly in vogue. Consider how many people were doing it. In 1960, about 7 million Americans lived alone, but by the end of the decade more than 4 million others had joined them, making for some 11 million one-person households in the United States. During the 1970s the ranks rose faster and higher than ever before, topping 18 million in 1980.32 The increase was particularly sharp in cities. In Manhattan, for instance, the proportion of residential units with just one resident went from 35 percent in 1960 to 46 percent in 1980, and the proportional rise was even greater in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco. The numbers of people living alone has continued to increase since the 1970s.
It rose slowly during the 1980s and 1990s, then soared in the 2000s. Today more than 5 million Americans under thirty-five have places of their own.
MANY OF THE YOUNG ADULTS who live alone were brought up to do so. Not explicitly, since all children share their home with a family or adults of some sort, and schools do not promote living alone as a goal. But today an unprecedented number of children around the world develop the capacity and desire to live independently through another, historically novel experience: growing up in a room of one’s own.
Traditionally, most children in the same family shared a room with each other, if not with their parents. This was true, of course, for the children of immigrant families who lived in urban tenements, and of African American children whose families packed into apartments after migrating to the northern states. But, until recently, it was also true of native-born white middle-class families, and even of some affluent ones. According to the U.S. Census, in 1960 the average family household had 2.4 children and 0.7 bedrooms per child. Since then, American families have become smaller and homes have grown larger. By 1980 the average household had 2 children and 1 bedroom per child, and in 2000 it had 1.9 children and 1.1 bedrooms per child—meaning it is common for American kids to have not only their own room, but perhaps even some claim on another one. Indeed, the size of a typical American home more than doubled between 1950 and 2000, rising from 983 square feet to more than 2,200. Today in many middle-class communities parents feel negligent if they don’t provide a private bedroom for each of their children. Adults who love living in city centers will leave for the suburbs so they can give their children private space.
Once a luxury, in recent years it has become an entitlement of middleclass life. Whether in cities or suburbs, today’s children also spend an unprecedented amount of time home alone, preparing their own snacks or meals and planning their own leisure time, because it’s increasingly common for both of their parents to spend their weekdays at work. According to “Latchkey Kids,” a report by the William Gladden Foundation, by 2005 somewhere between 10 million and 15 million American children under age sixteen were regularly taking care of themselves after school or during summer vacations. “More children today have less adult supervision than ever before in American history,” the report claims, and many “begin their self-care at about age eight.”
The rise of latchkey kids and private rooms within the home is an international phenomenon. In Europe, the dramatic decline in fertility rates over the past fifty years has transformed the experience of domestic space. Between 1960 and 2000, the average number of people per household fell from 3.1 to 2.3 in England, from 3.1 to 2.4 in France, from 3.8 to 2.6 in Germany, from 3.6 to 2.6 in Italy, and from 2.8 to 2.1 in Denmark. The trends are similar in Canada, where between 1960 and 2005 the average household size dropped from 4 to 2.5; in Japan, where from 1975 to 2005 it went from 3.3 in to 2.5; and in the United States, where it plummeted from nearly 5 in 1900 to 3 in 1950 and 2.6 in 2000. In nearly all of these nations, the shrinking family has coincided with the extraordinary physical growth of the house and the apartment. By the late twentieth century, people throughout the developed world could be together at home with their family, but also alone.
Today, of course, we no longer need private rooms to separate into individual environments. Entire families can sit together, and even share a meal, while each member is immersed in an iPhone or a laptop rather than in conversation with those nearby. But the availability of a domestic private sphere for each person in a middle-class residence changed the norms of family interaction long before the advent of social media. In her comparative study of child-rearing practices among different class groups in the United States, sociologist Annette Lareau noticed that in the typical middle-class family, each child has his or her own room, and “except for times when they share meals (this happens only once every few days), parents and children are rarely all together in the same room.” Instead, family life is organized around the needs and interests of each individual, parents and children included. The children do not belong to the same sports teams, play the same instruments, or hang out with the same friends, so the family develops a schedule that allows each one to be dropped off and picked up on his or her own. The parents do everything to promote “the individual development of each child,” and in the process the children “learn to think of themselves as special and as entitled.” But they also grow hostile toward and competitive with their siblings. For although the middle- class children rarely engage in face-to-face interaction with each other, Lareau observes, “references to ‘hating’ a family member are common and elicit no special reaction.” Things are calmer when everyone keeps to himself. In an influential 1958 essay, the psychologist and pediatrician Donald Winnicott argued, paradoxically, that “the capacity to be alone is based on the experience of being alone in the presence of someone, and that without a sufficiency of this experience the capacity to be alone cannot develop.” Specifically, Winnicott was referring to the infant and mother relationship, and to the developmental process through which a young child learns to feel secure on his or her own and self-contained when with others, because the reliable presence of the mother conveys the sense that the environment is benign and allows for healthy attachments. This process may well still be important, but children who grew up in the decades after Winnicott published his essay have had more opportunities to cultivate an ability to be alone—and not only because so many had private bedrooms. One striking cultural change related to the rise of private bedrooms concerns the way child psychologists advise parents to help their infants sleep. For most of human history, mothers and infants slept together; today, the great majority of the world’s mothers and children still do. The biological anthropologist James McKenna, who directs the Mother- Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at Notre Dame University, argues that in the process of evolution mothers developed an innate capacity to attend to the needs of their sleeping children, even when they themselves are in deep sleep. While many cultures have used cradles to support sleeping babies, the crib was not widely marketed to or used by middle-class families until the twentieth century. Initially, babies who slept in cribs were placed near their mothers, close to or right next to the family bed. But in late 1946 a pediatrician named Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, in which (among other things) he advised parents to place newborns in rooms of their own so that they could learn to sleep independently, while also giving Mom and Dad some privacy and peace.
It’s hard to measure the impact of a few lines in an advice book, but this, of course, as no ordinary publication. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care went on to sell more than 50 million copies in thirty-nine languages, placing it among the bestselling books of all time. By the 1950s, “Dr. Spock” had become the modern world’s clear authority on child care and development, and his views on a great variety of issues—including sleep training for infants—commanded the attention of countless doctors and parents. In 2000, the chairwoman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was using her office to advise all parents to avoid sleeping with children under the age of two. And she did so with the full support of Dr. Spock’s successors: “sleep scientists” and child psychologists whose views on the value of individuating sleeping infants could be extreme.
In the 1986 bestseller Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, for instance, Richard Ferber reports, “We know for a fact that people sleep better alone in bed.” Parents, he acknowledges, may be tempted to give in to their infants’ desires to be near them when they slumber, and some may even “feel this is in their children’s best interests.” But he believes they are mistaken: “Sleeping alone is an important part of his learning to be able to separate from you without anxiety and to see himself as an independent individual.” Ferber has tough words for parents who resist his advice: “If you find that you prefer to have your child in your bed, you should examine your own feelings very carefully,” since it’s possible that “instead of helping your child you are using him to avoid facing and solving your own problems . . . If these problems cannot be simply settled, then professional counseling may be required.”38 Some parents were indeed put off by the harshness of the “Ferber method,” but millions of others bought his books and steeled themselves for the experience of “Ferberizing” their children. In the process, they helped acculturate the next generation to the experience of being alone. After growing up in a private bedroom with plenty of personal time, an increasing number of young adults want to maintain the condition when they leave home for the first time—even, or perhaps especially, if they are going to college. Housing officers at universities throughout the country report that a great majority of their entering students have never shared a bedroom and that many have trouble adjusting to life with a roommate during their first year. Once that year is finished, they’re willing to pay extra to restore their privacy. On today’s university campuses, the newest dormitories have an ample supply of single rooms, as well as suite-style units where students share a common area but have a private room with a bed and desk. Most colleges developed their housing stock before students began requesting singles, however, and today demand for private sleeping quarters far exceeds the supply. For example, in 2006, Miami University housing director Lucinda Coveney acknowledged that the school had been consistently unable to accommodate most requests for single residences and announced plans to build hundreds of new single-room units. “We need to meet the needs of the modern student,” she told the school paper. “A lot of students want that environment and privacy . . . We understand these residence halls were built a long time ago and we’re working to try to make on-campus living more attractive.” In 2008, George Washington University reported that it had received 286 applications for five single-room units in one of its dorms, and promised that it would add three hundred single units to its supply when it completed construction and renovation of new facilities. In 2009, Boston University opened a high-rise with luxurious “apartment-style” dorms for undergraduates, featuring a large number of one-person units (called singles) and suites in which each resident has a private room. In previous eras, graduating seniors packed into communal houses to share their final year of college near close friends. Today, a new spirit is emerging. “I applied by myself because my friends were all too cheap to live here,” a resident of the BU dorm told the Boston Globe. Now she could live without them, too.
AT LEAST ONE MOTHER with a child in BU’s luxury dorm recognized that her son would have a hard time maintaining his lifestyle after he left the university. “You graduate facing a terrible job market and having to live with rats in Brooklyn,” she told him in the fall of 2009. She could have added one more thing: Regardless of their preferences, all but the most affluent young adults who move to big cities to make it on their own soon discover that they’ll also have to live with roommates.
And this is significant, because the distinction between living with roommates and having a home of one’s own has acquired great cultural significance. For the current generation of young people, it’s the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming adult. Take Justin (a pseudonym) who was an aspiring journalist with a fresh degree from a Big Ten school when he got recruited to work in New York City at a job that came with transitional corporate housing. On first glance, Justin appears shy and guarded. He’s physically slight, with curly brown hair, deep-set eyes, and a soft, gentle voice that’s often hard to hear. He’s personable, and funny, once he gets comfortable, but since this can take a while he found that meeting people in New York was more difficult than he’d anticipated. Living alone didn’t help. Fortunately, several of his college friends had also moved there, and through them he found a shared apartment where the roommates enjoyed going out together just as they had when they were in school. Justin hadn’t soured on going solo, but he knew he wasn’t ready and that he could try again when the time was right.
It can be fun to have roommates when you’re young and single, as anyone who’s watched Friends or Three’s Company surely knows. Roommates provide companionship, so you don’t have to feel alone when you wake up in the morning or come home after a rough day. When you move to a new city, they can help you meet people, invite you to parties, and add to your social network. They may share in the cooking, cleaning, and shopping, which means you don’t have to do everything.
And they help pay the rent, which means you can live in a better neighborhood or save money for going out. For years, Justin enjoyed all these benefits, so much that he endured a seemingly endless series of transitions—people moving in and out, being forced to search for new apartments, relocating to different neighborhoods—so that he could keep sharing a place with people his age. But after five years Justin found himself focusing on the costs of this situation. For, as anyone who’s watched Friends or Three’s Company also knows, often—too often—having roommates is no fun at all. Is there anyone who has lived with roommates and not escaped with tales of woe? Review, among the many stories cataloged in the “trouble with roommates” findings from my research: The roommate, once a friend, who stops paying his rent or his share of the bills. The roommate who steals. The roommate with bad taste. The roommate who never leaves home. The roommate who goes silent. The roommate who blogs about you. The roommate with the TV addiction. The roommate with a drinking problem. The roommate who eats your food. The roommate who won’t do the dishes. The roommate who smells. The roommate who hates your girlfriend. The roommate who hits on your girlfriend. The roommate who becomes your girlfriend, and then breaks up with you . . . and refuses to move out.
Justin’s experiences were hardly catastrophic, but he had his share of difficulties. In one apartment, he and a roommate got on each other’s nerves and the atmosphere quickly became stressful. Justin dreaded seeing him in the living room or at the table. He started avoiding home, or rushed straight to his room when he got there. It was awful, he remembers: “When you don’t feel close to your roommates, in some ways that’s lonelier than living alone because your isolation is strikingly in front of you. It totally sucks.” So he moved, again to a place with roommates. The new place was better, but Justin felt himself still longing for more privacy. With roommates, he explains, “When you bring a girl home, not only will the girl notice your roommates, but your roommates will notice her.” The social life at home becomes a burden, sometimes an unbearable one. The conversation the next morning can be even worse. As Justin hit his late twenties, he had plenty of friends and enough money to afford a one-bedroom apartment downtown if he cut out some other expenses and gave up any hope of accumulating savings.
The choice was easy. He decided to live alone. The experience was transformative. “Now I can’t imagine living with a roommate,” Justin explains. “I would not be happy.” He’s older, and in his social circle, he says, once you’re past your mid-twenties there’s an expectation that you’ll either live with a partner or have a place of your own. There’s a stigma around having roommates as a grown-up, he reports. “I might be embarrassed to admit it. I mean, I feel like an adult now and it’s hard to imagine. Having roommates feels sort of unadult.”
“A book so important that it is likely to become both a popular read and a social science classic. . . . This book really will change the lives of people who live solo, and everyone else . . . thorough, balanced, and persuasive.” — Psychology Today
“Fascinating and admirably temperate . . . [Going Solo] does a good job of explaining the social forces behind the trend and exploring the psychology of those who participate in it.” — Daniel Akst, The Wall Street Journal
“Klinenberg convincingly argues that the convergence of mass urbanization, communications technology, and liberalized attitudes has driven this trend.” — Slate— Slate
“Going Solo examines a dramatic demographic trend: the startling increase in adults living alone. Along the way, the book navigates some rough and complicated emotional terrain, finding its way straight to questions of the heart, to the universal yearning for happiness and purpose. In the end, despite its title, Going Solo is really about living better together—for all of us, single or not.” — The Washington Post
"Today, as Eric Klinenberg reminds us in his book, Going Solo, more than 50 percent of adults are single . . . [he] nicely shoes that people who live alone are more likely to visit friends and join social groups. They are more likely to congregate in and create active, dynamic cities." — David Brooks, The New York Times
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