Going Solo

“Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone ” by Eric Klinenberg

“Going Solo” sets out to examine 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.

Eric Klinenberg starts his journey with a telling fact: More than 50 percent of American adults are single — a number that has jumped from 22 percent in 1950. And one in every seven adults lives alone. Unfortunately, Klinenberg notes, discussions about the single lifestyle “tend to represent it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.” Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, sets out to debunk this myth.

There’s plenty of evidence, he acknowledges, that living alone can be damaging. Exile once ranked as the severest form of punishment — a fate worse than death. Indeed, throughout history and in all cultures, the family unit has been the building block of society, crucial for protection, food-gathering and reproduction. Other species, too, exhibit the tendency toward collective living. Even hermit crabs, their name notwithstanding, need company. Left alone, they suffer deteriorating health, and they may lose a leg or a claw.

Many people interviewed for Klinenberg’s study, however — from young professionals to divorced middle agers to independent seniors — attest to the benefits of solo living. They describe feelings of complete freedom, the joy of being able to follow your own schedule, indulge your own habits and focus on your own growth and development instead of always considering or caring for someone else. No compromises. No sacrifices. No attachments. These upbeat singles typically find themselves more socially active, not less. “Although we often associate living alone with social isolation,” Klinenberg writes, “for most adults the reverse is true.”

Among the sometimes data-packed paragraphs, “Going Solo” readers meet a host of engagingly profiled “singletons,” the word Klinenberg uses for his subjects, each one an example of what living alone can look like. There’s “bold and brazen” Ella, a lawyer who loves to travel and has perfected the art of the independent life. There’s Helen, twice divorced, who declares that she was never more unhappy than when she was married and is thrilled to be on her own. And there’s Joan, a senior who relishes her autonomy and wants to avoid being dependent on or too involved with her adult children and their families. These people are proof that living alone is not synonymous with being lonely.

What’s notable about these upbeat singletons is that they view solo life not as an opportunity to withdraw, but as a chance to reach out. Instead of being restricted by the demands of a relationship or the obligations of a family, they are free to pursue what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the cult of the individual.” But like Thoreau, the famous American individualist who built a cabin in the woods and relished having his “own sun and moon and stars, and little world all to myself,” these 21st-century urban singletons with ready access to social media can, essentially, walk into town at a moment’s notice. They can reconnect.

And therein lies the paradox that permeates the book. Living alone works best as a lifestyle choice when it leads to greater connection. Every singleton interviewed, even the most enthusiastic, had at least some reservations or worries: pangs about not having children or concerns about spending too much time at the office, poignant questions about failed marriages or the lack of a long-term relationship, fear of facing illness or death alone. But in this way, the author notes, single people are no different from those living with a partner. They “struggle with loneliness or the feeling that they need to change something to make their lives feel more complete,” Klinenberg writes. “But so, too, do their married friends and family members.” In other words, we’re all in the same boat.

Klinenberg urges readers to embrace and support the boom in solo living, with its potential to strengthen individual self-worth and invigorate social and civic life. (He stresses that his study focuses only on urban settings and that the issues of living alone in rural settings involve other challenges and should be the subject of another study.) He cites examples of living situations that create a supportive community for singles of all ages. In Stockholm, for example, where 60 percent of all dwellings are occupied by someone living alone, he visited Färdknäppen, a community-owned facility for singles over 40 that includes a slew of communal spaces — a library, a TV room, an exercise room, a carpentry room, a weaving room and, most significantly, a dining room where most of the residents meet to eat dinner and socialize. It’s a place where people live happily “alone together.”

Klinenberg explores more than a fascinating social trend, though. His examination of solo living touches on a deep and intangible emotional issue that we all share, regardless of how we live. “Finding a partner,” he writes, “is not enough to solve the social pain of loneliness, which is a fundamental part of the human experience.” He also notes that, for those who live alone not by choice, but because of circumstance — the poor, the ill and, in many cases, the elderly — solitude can be a crushing and painful burden, bringing with it none of the positive aspects of single life.

Which is why he argues for an examination of social policy that could have an effect on how all of us live and interact with one another. Comparing the rise of single living to two other major demographic shifts — the influx of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the post-World War II baby boom — Klinenberg writes, “The rise of living alone is a less publicly visible but equally dramatic transformation, and it will be impossible to manage it well without bold policy initiatives.”

As a society, we are still in the early stages of this solo experiment. Will we find ourselves descending into a state of “rampant isolation” or figure out ways to encourage a return to robust community life that supports single living? To answer these questions requires wrestling with a deeper issue: Living alone is no guarantee of happiness — nor is dwelling in the company of others. But the author’s findings suggest that crafting policies that promote creative living solutions could lead to happier and emotionally healthier communities. And his book reminds us that to get there, we’ll have to draw on all the individual talent we can muster as we work it out — together.