By any measure, Going Solo is a significant book, though one with a sombre message. It can be summed in one statistic provided by the author: in the US in 1950, 22 percent of adults were single; today, more than 50 percent are in this position; 31 million people live alone. Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, sets out to analyze this statistic and to draw conclusions from it.
I find the conclusions more disheartening than Klinenberg does. Although at the start he quotes Genesis – “It is not good for man to be alone” – and discusses the long evolution that resulted in the nuclear family, it is clear that he is optimistic about the evolving social future of the human species – even as it moves further away from the traditional family unit.
What is happening to American society when, for the first time in its history, “the majority of all American adults are single”? Is it a problem, a sign of “narcissistic fragmentation”? The author would rather not think so. There is no precedent for the current state of affairs. Although Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau all praised the self-sufficient man, the author shows that they were, in reality, very closely involved in the society around them. He adds that Robinson Crusoe, the classic fictional account of solitude, “before a human footprint on the beach is essentially a horror story.”
He is keen not to enlarge on the possibilities of “horror”, preferring to ascribe the widespread rise in living alone today as, in part, because “more people can afford to do so.” Freedom and personal choice are cherished modern virtues, running alongside the rising status of women, a revolution in communications – and longevity. “Living alone helps us to pursue sacred modern values – individual freedom, personal control, self-realization”. People also live alone because they are divorced or widowed.
What is critical, according to Klinenberg, is finding ways to help those suffering from social isolation – but ways that accept the current reality and do not challenge it. “What matters is not whether we live alone, but whether we feel alone,” he argues. I would have thought that the two often go together, especially for older people.
Modern cities and suburbs, which evolved for an older social model, the needs of family units, could be adapted further to embrace this new social revolution, according to the author. So there’s no going back, then, to communities where the majority of people are married and where the elderly could be taken care of within the family and local community? For Klinenberg, modern community life means making allowances for the five million Americans under 35 who live in apartments of their own. He acknowledges, nonetheless, that “most young adults who live alone see it as a stage, not an end point.”
Yet more and more of them find themselves facing this “end point”: having grown up in smaller families, with a bedroom of their own and with two working parents, and armed with laptops, tablets and iphones, the present generation of educated middle-class youth (Klinenberg seems to concentrate on this class, rather than on African-Americans or Hispanics, who might not conform to the model) also has to give total commitment to climbing the highly competitive corporate ladder – usually to the detriment of relationships.
Much of his book is given over to extended interviews with people living on their own – young, worried careerists, the middle-aged divorced and elderly single and widowed people. They all have a story to tell, whether of failed relationships, enjoyment of their freedom or the fears and uncertainties of old age. Klinenberg also describes the world of the old US rooming houses, the sort described by John Steinbeck, where a shifting population of working men lived in “SROs” – single room occupancies.
His descriptions reminded me of Edward Hopper’s paintings: lonely people renting rooms in desolate buildings, forever isolated from the community. Another statistic: in 1950, only 1 in 10 Americans over 65 lived alone; today it is 1 in 3. The author accepts that there is a “haunting social problem” with this age group, given increased longevity and the lack of adequate care homes or care in the community (it seems the US is not unlike the UK in this respect.)
From “Dinks” (double income no kids), he thinks we have moved to “Sinks” – single income no kids. From bad to worse, some might suggest, though the author would demur: we need to “address the challenges of a singleton society” in his view, rather than to challenge the model itself.
His solution: redesigning solo life and “SROs”, reorganising suburbs, rethinking assisted living for the elderly (involving the possibility of sophisticated robotic assistance) and so on. I note that Klinenberg himself is married with two children, so he hasn’t embraced “going solo”. I rather think this situation is forced upon people by circumstances; few choose to live this way on a permanent basis and those who do have often been wounded by past relationships. As I said at the start, this is a sombre book, even if its author did not intend it to be.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.