Book Review: Going Solo (Living Alone)

I thought this book would be of interest because of the policy implications suggested for an aging, single (and poorer) population – admin.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. By Eric Klinenberg. Penguin Press; 273 pages; $27.99. Gerald Duckworth & Co; Pounds 16.99

“YOU need an apartment alone even if it’s over a garage,” declared Helen Gurley Brown in her 1962 bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl”. To Brown, who went on to edit Cosmopolitan magazine, the benefits of solo livingwere innumerable: it afforded the space to cultivate the self, furnish the mind, work late and indulge in sexual experimentation. Young women should enjoy their best years without a husband, she advised, as this not only laid the foundation for stronger marriages but also gave them a lifestyle to fall back on in case they found themselves alone again.

Sensational at the time, Brown’s counsel seems sensible now. Certainly both sexes have taken it to heart, marrying later, divorcing readily and living alone in larger numbers than ever before. In America more than half of all adults are single and roughly one out of seven lives alone. Worldwide, the number of solo dwellers has climbed from 153m in 1996 to 202m in 2006–a 33% jump in a decade, according to Euromonitor International, a market analyst. Yet little is known about the wider social effects of this unprecedented boom, writes Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University. His new book “Going Solo” offers a comprehensive look at the lures and perils of living alone. 

Mr Klinenberg parts with those who see the rise of solo living as yet another sign of the decline of civic society. Now that marriage is no longer the ticket to adulthood, a desire to live alone is perfectly reasonable, he writes. Young adults view it as a rite of passage, a period of personal growth before possibly settling down. Its cultural acceptance has helped to liberate women from bad marriages and oppressive families, granting them a space to return to civic life. And as elderly adults live longer than ever before, often without a partner, many hope to stay independent for as long as possible. Nearly everyone who lives alone prefers it to their other options, says Mr Klinenberg, and ever more people hope to join the ranks.

Solitary living need not mean solitude (“No one really bowls alone,” Mr Klinenberg quips). The author offers evidence that people who live alone are often more socially active than their cohabitating peers. The “communications revolution” has allowed more people to experience the pleasures of social life from the comforts of home, and cities with high numbers of singletons enjoy a thriving public culture of bars, cafes and restaurants. Urban officials are now eager to lure professional singles–known to both work and play hard–in the hope that they will stimulate the local culture and economy.

Living alone is easy enough for the young and solvent; less so for the elderly, frail and poor. Mr Klinenberg came to this story while working on a book about the lethal Chicago heatwave of 1995, when hundreds of people died alone at home, out of touch with friends and neighbours. The trend for solo living can too easily morph into social isolation, particularly for men, who are less adept than women at making and sustaining connections. Other bugbears include loneliness, discrimination (in the workplace, the tax code and so on) and workaholism. Ageing single adults–a fast-growing group–complain that there are few decent, affordable alternatives to withering away.

Mr Klinenberg looks wistfully to the Scandinavian countries, where generous social-welfare benefits and communal urban design allow more people to live alone together. He optimistically calls for “bold policy initiatives” such as more affordable housing and assisted-living facilities. “We’ll need them,” he adds, “since so many of us will be living alone.”

(Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved.)

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