Happy Alone: Baltimore Joins Single-Rights Movement

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More people are living alone than ever before — and the long building global trend is suddenly gaining more media coverage by the month. Maybe you’ve read that one in three Americans lives solo? In 2000, it was already one in four. The percentage of single-dwellers in the U.S. has doubled since 1960. In Sweden, 47 percent of households are single-occupant. In the following American cities more than 40 percent of households house a total of one: Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis, and Seattle. In Manhattan almost 50 percent of singletons are kicking it singly.

I suppose I hadn’t really thought much about the trend’s implications until I came across the NYTimes review of Eric Klinenberg’s new book Going Solo, in which Klinenberg an ethnographer discusses why more folks are choosing “solitude” and why we, as a society, should and should not be worried about it.

First off, why is this swing occurring? In an engaging interview (and book review) published in the March/April issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly, Charlotte Bruce Harvey unpacks Klinenberg’s key reasons.

One explanation: More people wait longer to marry these days; more are more likely to take a few years or a couple of decades to explore options, living alone (sans roommates eventually), before making an official commitment to another person, as wedded partner or contract-free live-in love. Another: Fifty percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce these days and the rate of remarriage is dropping. Additionally, only two percent of widows and 20 percent of widowers remarry.

Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing more than 300 adults based in D.C., New York, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco, and in other countries as well, people in their 20s and 30s, newly divorced adults, widows and widowers, all sorts, all ages. In his book, he emphasizes that for many of these single occupants the solo situation is temporary. For others (young and old) it may actually be a very happy longterm choice; the blissful non-bathmat-sharing folks, he says, often choose “intimacy at a distance.” The merriest widows he encountered, for example, hit frequent lectures with friends, bridge club meetings and other social scenes, but vow never to make marriage vows a second time.

Of course, isolation can become a bad habit and the negative/unhealthy side effect of truly single, solitary living. Bruce Harvey notes in BAM that, “Klinenberg found that the late 30s and early 40s can be deeply painful for single women, whose biological clocks may be ticking loudly. [Plus,] aging alone is especially dangerous for men…”

Loneliness and isolation often lead to clinical depression for human beings…of any age; single-dwellers are encouraged to seek out lively and supportive group talk sessions, not just prescriptions for antidepressants, says BBC News.

This sad scoop also: “People of working age who live alone increase their risk of depression by up to 80 percent compared with people living in families says a Finnish study,” according to the connected story posted last Thursday by BBC News.

So, is individualism sometimes a reckless thing psychologically, physically? Is solo-flying an unnatural way to exist?

Is it perhaps culturally damning?

Many critics of the one-dinner-plate club, including authors Robert D. Putnam (Bowling Alone – good title) and Robert N. Bellah (Habits of the Heart), worry that our culture has shifted, not just toward single-occupancy but toward narcissism, too, and away from collective communal sharing, Bruce Harvey explains.

But Klinenberg, who’s adept at describing nuance, points out that “living alone affords modern city dwellers sorely needed time and space for solitary reflection,” Bruce Harvey adds.

Among my Baltimore circle of friends, the census statistics seem to bear out accurately: Roughly one-third of my local group lives alone. My single-occupant friends happen to be active, generous, happy-seeming people, most in their 30s and 40s, some in their 50s and above. They are among my most creatively productive friends, I should note. And their social calendars appear to be crammed full, with Facebook as source. At least half of them, if I count casually on my hand, don’t visualize marriage in their future. Are these unique team players part of an emerging single rights movement of sorts? (At the next dinner party, if the right words come, maybe I will start asking them.)

Here’s what commenter Avocado has to say about the matter at the SLOG blog at TheStranger.com: “There actually is a singles rights movement, but it’s very small and doesn’t get much attention. The problem is, a large percentage of people who are single don’t really want to be, feel bad about it, and would jump at the chance to leave the ranks!”

More singular-dweller data required. Do you live alone, reader? Or are you surrounded by family members at nearly every hour? In either case, tell me straight, one on one, how do you like it?

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  1. Living alone is to narcissism as being married is to living happily ever after – it is a theoretical jump that is completely dependent upon the perspective of the analyst and, frankly, unfairly biased.

    Both Putnam and Bellah’s books were about the demise of civil society in America, due to the external influences of private industry and global corporate meritocracy. While the statistic of single-living is not something to ignore, I do not agree with the conclusion that single-living is an indicator of selfishness and rejection of community. The demise of civil society in America and the increase of single households are not interrelated.

    As a single household, I find that my social interaction and financial contribution to the community is as high or even higher than most couples. I eat at local restaurants and bars. I attend cultural/art events. I intentionally engage with others because I am single and want person-to-person interaction. The feelings of “loneliness and isolation” described by Klinenberg are symptomatic of deeper, personal issues than living alone. Intimacy of relationships – friend or otherwise – is not dependent upon your living situation. While, one day, I want to share my home with a loving partner, to pin my personal satisfaction and happiness on whether or not I have a live-in is short-sighted.

    • thank you! That is well said. I also am living alone, not by choice, and though I do enjoy day to day activities on my own schedule, I envy those with what I perceive to be fuller lives than mine.

  2. I am approaching 40 and I love living alone. I have never been married and don’t have any children. I had my own apartment for at least 8 years until I moved last year. I relocated to another state and have been living with family members. It is driving me crazy! It is financially feasible and makes more sense to live with them for right now, but my goal is to get my own place. Don’t me wrong, living alone does get lonely once in a while. But generally speaking, I am happiest when it’s just me, myself and I.

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