Dec/Jan 2012

The Loneliest Number

Buzzy Jackson


We Americans love our icons of individuality—Henry David Thoreau, the Lone Ranger, Carrie Bradshaw—almost as much as we wish all the single people would just settle down and get married. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo, “Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses.” Nevertheless, we’d better start getting OK with it—because, as Klinenberg shows, this country is getting more single by the minute. The facts are astonishing. “The majority of all American adults are single,” he writes. “The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.” And, as he goes on to note, “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households.” Adults living alone are “more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.” OK, fine: We’re single. So why are we so insecure about it?

Like his predecessors who have mined the social fallout of the country’s individualist streak—writers such as David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 1995)—Klinenberg wants to expose a previously underreported fact of American existence, something so huge we’ve come to take it for granted. As he writes: “Living alone is something that each person or family experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact it is an increasingly common condition and deserves to be treated as a subject of great political significance.” When it does become the topic of debate, living alone is usually presented as “an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life.” But Klinenberg maintains that none of these judgments are necessarily true.

Klinenberg begins with a basic admission: This book is about the middle and upper classes. And this concession by itself tells us something important about living alone: People do it as soon as they can afford to. So please do not throw the book (or this review) on the floor when I tell you the first chapter begins at a championship adult kickball game in Brooklyn. Klinenberg starts with the Non-Committals (imagine the sociologist’s joy—that’s the actual name of the winning kickball team) because here we have one of his target groups: people in their twenties and thirties who “have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood.” What happened to all the “boomerang” kids, those foot-shuffling college grads who lived in their parents’ basements? The data show that there are fewer slackers today than ever before.

Going Solo really gets interesting when Klinenberg addresses a seemingly inevitable fork in the path of American “singletons” (as he calls them): that moment, usually sometime in their thirties, when living alone morphs from a symbol of status (signifying financial security, confidence, independence) to a symbol of pathos (signifying loneliness, unattractiveness, an inability to find a romantic partner). Klinenberg delves into the challenges of living alone, starting with discrimination at work, as in the case of Sherri, who witnessed married coworkers getting raises as management continued to deny her any pay increases. When she confronted her boss, he told her, “You wear all these clothes, and you’re always out, and we figured you don’t need it.”

Sherri quit. But the bigger problem is one that most Americans under fifty will recognize, single or not. “The work world makes extraordinary claims on the lives of young workers. Give yourself to business during the prime of your life, or give up your hope of achieving any real success.” It’s a brutal fact with very real consequences. In the “free agent” labor market that now governs our working life, he writes, “the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family.”

Going Solo is most compelling in moments like this, when Klinenberg makes connections between public policy, the law, and the rational choices human beings make in response to economic reality. Why should we be surprised that fifty-year-old women are first-time mothers, when those women had to devote what had previously been thought of as their “childbearing years” to securing a financial foothold in an increasingly cutthroat economy?

Klinenberg also spends time on the topic of aging alone (today, one in three Americans over sixty-five lives alone, and that number increases in higher age brackets). His award-winning 2002 book, Heat Wave, investigated the deaths of more than seven hundred Chicagoans—mostly single—who perished in the city’s 1995 heat wave. A city investigator called them “a secret society of people who live and die alone,” and, as Klinenberg demonstrated, in many cases their social isolation led to their deaths. Here, he explores how American society might make the challenge of aging alone less lonely and more humane. He cites Congress’s passage of the 2006 Lifespan Respite Care Act, which allocates money to help pay for community-based caregiving for the elderly and the disabled, as one positive, though inadequate, step forward.

Regardless of one’s age demographic, living alone creates certain challenges for society. “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together,” Klinenberg writes, “we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?” Indeed, “what if” public policy could be created in response to “facts,” as he suggests, rather than irrational fears? It would be preferable, of course. Then again, it’s much easier for most of us to keep rooting for Carrie to marry Mr. Big.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist (Touchstone, 2010) and A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them (Norton, 2005).

Evangeline

March 24, 2013
10:50 am

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