More Americans are living alone for long stretches of their lives

August 18, 2012 – As Bob Dylan once noted, “The times they are a changin’.”

This may not be any more prevalent than in the living habits of American adults.

An essay written by NYU Sociology Professor Erik Klinenberg entitled “Going Solo, The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone”, shows this particular lifestyle pattern for many Americans has drastically changed over the last 50 plus years.

In 1950, for example, 22 percent of American adults were single, yet only four million lived alone, which accounted for nine percent of all households. Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million live alone, amounting to about one in every seven households or 28 percent. And that 28 percent is a national rate; there are some individual cities, such as New York or Washington D.C., where 40 percent of the population lives alone.

That, according to Klinenberg, “is the biggest social change of the last 50 or 60 years that we have failed to name or identify.”

Why such a dramatic change?

One reason that today’s adult living alone differs from the solo adult of 50 years ago is that he or she probably made the choice to do so. They are opting to live alone, even though there are other solutions, such as living with a family member, finding a roommate, or living in an institutional home if they are elderly. Fifty years ago, any of those choices would have been the answer. But the majority of today’s single adults, even if they are elderly, choose to live alone.

This is a pattern more common for Americans, but it is also catching on across Europe and Asia. And the choice is more than economical — where in many poorer countries people cannot afford to live alone — it’s also cultural. In wealthy areas of Saudi Arabia, for example, there’s hardly anyone who lives alone.

The stigma of living alone

While many may associate isolation with living alone, Klinenberg’s research proves just the opposite. “People who live alone, whether they’re 30 or 40 or 75, are actually more likely than people who are married to spend time with friends and with neighbors, to go out in the city and spend time and money in bars and restaurants. They’re more likely to go to public events. They’re even more likely to volunteer in civic organizations,” he says.

Klinenberg states that in no way is his essay against the institution of marriage or cohabitation; rather, it is just a way for him to come to terms with the fact that more people today are opting to live alone.

He adds, “They may not aspire to it, but they’re not going to settle with living with the wrong person in the way that they might have 50 years ago.”

What is the appeal?

For me, living alone was a change that came with a big adjustment. I had gotten married young, and moved from my parents’ home to a home with my husband. I remember joking that I had to get a divorce to finally get a bedroom to myself for the first time in my life. And after that, I didn’t live alone until my son went off to college. I did miss him, of course, but I also quickly discovered I enjoyed living alone.

While I know several other single-parent empty nesters, or singles in general who feel the same way I do, I also know just as many who would rather share their living quarters with another person, whether it be their spouse, significant other, their kids, or friend. It’s pretty evenly split.

There is no perfect way to live your life. By now, we’ve all learned that living alone doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness, and living with a spouse and/or kids does mean you won’t feel lonely. Every lifestyle choice, whether you live alone, or have a family of eight, has its pros and cons, and its possibilities and limitations. And they are different for everyone.

It’s just nice to have the choice.

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2 thoughts on “More Americans are living alone for long stretches of their lives

  1. This provides food for thought. I think “alone” time is important and perhaps in the BUSY society in which we live, living alone is the one way to get it. This does not mean that individuals living alone are self centered as your article points out.

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