Solitary Social Creatures

Eric Klinenberg, National Post · May 23, 2012 

In the beginning of the Old Testament, God creates the world one day at a time: The heavens and the Earth. Water. Light. Day and night. Living species of every kind. After each creation, God declares: “It is good.” But the tone changes when God makes Adam. Suddenly, God pronounces the first thing that is not good: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” So God makes Eve, and Adam is no longer on his own.

In time, injunctions against being alone moved from theology to philosophy and literature. In Politics, Aristotle wrote: “The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.” The Greek poet Theocritus insisted that “man will ever stand in need of man,” and the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius proclaimed that “human beings are social animals.”

So, too, are other animals. (Aristotle, alas, was only half right.) Beasts will indeed live on their own when conditions favour it, particularly when there is a shortage of food. Otherwise, most species fare better in groups. Collective living carries some costs, including competition for status and occasional outbursts of violence. But the benefits – protection from predators, co-operative hunting, efficient reproduction, among others – can easily outweigh them. Our closest animal relatives, the apes, are typically social and live in stable units. Even orangutans, which are notoriously solitary, live with their mothers during their first seven or eight years, and as the Dutch primatologist Carel van Schaik has discovered, orangutans living in a calorically rich swamp forest in Sumatra are “every bit as sociable” as their cousins, the chimpanzees.

Orangutans are not the only misrepresented creatures. Hermit crabs, it turns out, are actually quite social, living in communities of up to 100 because they cannot thrive alone. One manual for prospective pet owners advises that “it’s best to always have at least two hermit crabs in a tank – if possible at least two of each species.” Not because they need protection or help with food gathering, but for a simpler reason: When alone, hermit crabs get stressed and unhealthy. Their bodies fail them. They may even lose a leg or a claw.

Isolation can also be unbearably stressful for people, as policy makers in different historical eras have recognized.

In the ancient world, exile ranked among the most severe forms of punishment, exceeded only by execution. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern prison systems popularized the use of solitary confinement because, as the English jurist William Paley put it, isolation “would augment the terror of the punishment” and thereby deter crime. Today, the United States alone detains roughly 25,000 people in “supermax” prisons where, one prominent psychologist writes, inmates “experience levels of isolation – that are more total and complete and literally dehumanized than has been possible in the past.” A common phrase used to describe this condition conveys one widespread belief about being cut off from others: It is, say both critics and advocates of solitary confinement, a “living death.”

Nothing better expresses the human interest in collective living than the formation of families. Throughout history and in all cultures, families, not individuals, have been the fundamental building blocks of social and economic life. And for good reason. As evolutionary biologists argue, living with others offered a competitive advantage to members of the first human societies because it provided security, access to food and a means of reproduction. Through natural selection, argue social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, our species developed a genetic disposition to establish close social ties.

In 1949, the Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock published a survey of some 250 “representative cultures” from different eras and diverse parts of the world. He reported, “The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.”

Since then, scholars have challenged Murdock’s argument, identifying domestic arrangements, such as the Israeli kibbutz, that don’t fit into his nuclear model. Yet their counterexamples are always alternative collectives, typically including more people than the conventional family. Though this debate remains unsettled, there’s one thing both sides would agree on: Human societies, at all times and places, have organized themselves around the will to live with others, not alone.

But not anymore. During the past half century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people – at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion – have begun settling down as singletons. (I use the term “singletons” for people who live alone. “Singles” may or may not live alone (some live with a romantic partner, or roommates, or children), and so not all singles are singletons.)

Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. (The Pew Research Center reports that the average age of first marriage for men and women is “the highest ever recorded, having risen by roughly five years in the past half century.”) We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others – even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together, alone.

Not long ago, it might have made sense to treat living on our own as a transitional stage between more durable arrangements, whether coupling up with a partner or moving into an institutional home. This is no longer appropriate, because today, for the first time in centuries, just under half of all American adults are single. 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.

Naturally, we are adapting. We are learning to go solo, and crafting new ways of living in the process.

Numbers never tell the whole story, but in this case the statistics are startling. In 1950, 22% of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9% of all households. In those days, living alone was by far most common in the open, sprawling Western states – Alaska, Montana and Nevada – that attracted migrant workingmen, and it was usually a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.

Today, more than 50% of American adults are single, and 31 million – roughly one out of every seven adults – live alone. (This figure excludes the eight million Americans who live in voluntary and non-voluntary group quarters, such as assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and prisons.) People who live alone make up 28% of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family and the roommate or group home. Surprisingly, living alone is also one of the most stable household arrangements. Over a fiveyear period, people who live alone are more likely to stay that way than everyone except married couples with children.

Contemporary solo dwellers are primarily women: about 17 million, compared to 14 million men. The majority, more than 15 million, are middle-age adults between the ages of 35 and 64. The elderly account for about 10 million of the total. Young adults between 18 and 34 number more than five million, compared to 500,000 in 1950, making them the fastest-growing segment of the solo-dwelling population.

Unlike their predecessors, people who live alone today cluster together in metropolitan areas and inhabit all regions of the country. The cities with the highest proportion of people living alone include Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, New York City and Miami. One million people live alone in New York City, and in Manhattan, just under half of all residences are one person dwellings.

Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time. We aspire to get our own places as young adults, but fret about whether it’s all right to stay that way, even if we enjoy it. We worry about friends and family members who haven’t found the right match, even if they insist that they’re happy on their own and will find someone in due course. We struggle to support elderly parents and grandparents who find themselves living alone after losing a spouse, and we are puzzled about what to do if they tell us they prefer to remain home alone.

In all of these situations, 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 public significance. Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation and a diminished public life. Our morally charged conversations tend to frame the question of why so many people now live on their own around the false and misleading choice between the romanticized ideal of Father Knows Best and the glamorous enticements of Sex and the City. In fact, as we’ll see, the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting – and far less isolating – than these conversations would have us believe.

The rise of living alone has been a transformative social experience. It changes the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships. It shapes the way we build our cities and develop our economies. It alters the way we become adults, as well as how we age and the way we die. It touches every social group and nearly every family, no matter who we are or whether we live with others today.

This “we” I speak of is more expansive than you might imagine. It’s tempting to treat the soaring rates of living alone as a peculiar American condition, an expression of what the literary critic Harold Bloom called the nation’s “religion of self-reliance.” After all, Americans have long taken pride in self-sufficiency. Thomas Jefferson called individualism “the great watchword of American life,” and the historian David Potter wrote that Americans view it as a “sacred term.”

In Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his coauthors distinguish between two traditions of American individualism. “Utilitarian individualism,” best exemplified by Benjamin Franklin, is based on the belief that society flourishes when each person pursues his or her interests first; this notion has inspired America’s libertarian streak. “Expressive individualism,” as exemplified by Walt Whitman, advocates cultivating and “celebrating” the self (as the poet put it in the first line of the first edition of Leaves of Grass). This view has inspired America’s ongoing search for identity and meaning. Though these two strains of individualism promote different values and agendas, together they offer Americans a well of cultural resources for putting the self before society. We draw from them often.

Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s first public intellectuals. In his powerful essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson warned that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” and he offered advice for those seeking relief: “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

Emerson’s n e i g h b o u r Henry David Thoreau made the case for self-reliance in more dramatic fashion, moving into a cabin he built near Walden Pond. “It is as solitary where I live as on the prairies,” he wrote. “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”

The wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau has inspired generations of American individualists to chart their own paths out of society. Lone rangers on the Western frontier. Cloaked detectives in the shadowy urban streets. Adventurers going “into the wild” to discover themselves. All are icons of American popular culture, symbols of our romantic fantasy of an unfettered self. So it would be easy to conclude that the contemporary urban singleton is just the latest variation on this theme.

It just wouldn’t be right. Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses. De Tocqueville found here both a creeping individualism, “which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends,” and an abiding moral code that binds citizens to each other in civic organizations and associations of all kinds.

Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau espoused the virtues of solitude. But the escape, for them, always preceded a return to society, and the insights borne of solitude were meant to promote the common good. In fact, reports of the transcendentalists’ individualism have been greatly exaggerated. Most of the leading gurus in that movement – Emerson and Thoreau, as well as Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller – were deeply engaged in civic and political life.

Thoreau was hardly alone, or self-sufficient, during the two years (from 1845 to 1847) he spent on and off at Walden Pond. His cabin, as modern visitors know, sat on land owned by Emerson and was less than two miles from Concord. Thoreau could walk to town in less than 30 minutes, and he returned often to see family and friends, sometimes spending hours downing drinks in the local pub. The human traffic went in two directions. Thoreau was happy to receive visitors, particularly his mother, who came frequently to deliver home-cooked meals.

Who could blame her?  Anxiety about the fate of people who live alone, particularly family or close friends, has always shadowed America’s interest in self-reliance. In the early colonial towns of New England, local authorities prohibited young men from living independently, lest they use this liberty for licentious pursuits. And as the historian David Potter noted, “In our literature, any story of the complete isolation, either physical or psychological, of a man from his fellowman, such as the story of Robinson Crusoe before he found a human footprint on the beach, is regarded as essentially a horror story.”

So, too, are reports that document the decline of American “communities” – another of our sacred terms. The titles of the most popular sociology books in U.S. history – The Lonely Crowd, The Pursuit of Loneliness, The Fall of Public Man, The Culture of Narcissism and Habits of the Heart – raise the specter of individualism run amok. As does one of the most influential works of recent scholarship: Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which argues that many of our contemporary problems – poor health, failing schools, distrust, even unhappiness – result from the collapse of community life. Americans are attracted to arguments like these precisely because we remain, at heart, a “nation of joiners,” just as we were when De Tocqueville visited nearly two centuries ago. American culture is not the driving force behind the incredible rise in living alone. If you’re not persuaded, consider another piece of evidence: Today, Americans are actually less likely to live alone than are residents of many other nations, including those we generally regard as more communal.

The four countries with the highest rates of living alone are Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, where roughly 40% to 45% of all households have just one person. By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support, the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.

They have good company. In Japan, where social life has historically been organized around the family, about 30% of all households now have a single dweller, and the rate is far higher in urban areas. Germany, France and the United Kingdom have famously different cultural traditions, but they share a greater proportion of one person households than the United States. Same for Australia and Canada. And the nations with the fastest growth in one-person households? China, India and Brazil. According to the market research firm Euro-monitor International, at the global level the number of people living alone is skyrocketing, having risen from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million today.

So what is driving the widespread rise in living alone? Unquestionably, both the wealth generated by economic development and the social security provided by modern welfare states have enabled the spike. Put simply, one reason that more people live alone than ever before is that today more people can afford to do so. Yet there are a great many things that we can afford to do but choose not to, which means the economic explanation is just one piece of the puzzle. We cannot understand why so many people in so many places are now living alone unless we address a difficult question: Of all the ways that the relatively privileged citizens of the most developed nations could use their unprecedented affluence and security, why are they using them to separate from each other?

From Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. © Eric Klinenberg, 2012.