The Rise of the Singles! Alone But Not Lonely
by Heath Shive
More than 50 percent of American adults are single! And roughly one in every seven adults lives…alone.
People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households. More people live alone than in nuclear families, multigenerational families, or have roommates.
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote a book on this phenomenon entitled “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”
“Singletons” – as Klinenberg calls single people who live alone – are primarily women (about 17 million, compared to 14 million men). Over 15 million are middle-age adults between the ages of 35 and 64. The elderly make up 10 million. Young adults (ages 18-34) number more than 5 million – but they are the fastest-growing segment of singletons.
The Rise of the Singleton
According to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone in the world has increased dramatically. In 1996, 153 million people lived alone. By 2006, that number was 202 million – an increase of 33 percent in one decade!
In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single, Klinenberg reports. Today, that number is 50 percent.
In 1950, 9 percent of the population lived alone. Today, 28 percent of America lives alone.
This isn’t just an American trend.
Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States! So do Australia and Canada.
And the nations with the fastest growth in one-person households?
China, India, and Brazil.
Is This a Problem?
Obviously, singletons are increasing. But is this good or bad?
Unfortunately, as Klinenberg writes, when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, “commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life.”
What is driving the widespread rise in living alone? Simply put, more people live alone because they can afford it.
But something is being lost, right? Not necessarily. The four countries with the highest rates of living alone are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark – where roughly 40 to 45 percent of all households have just one person. By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support, the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.
The pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim talked about the “cult of the individual,” which he said grew out of the transition from traditional rural communities to modern industrial cities.
But Durkheim also argued that the modern division of labor would bind citizens organically! In other words, you cannot live alone in a vacuum – society must have the institutions (family, economy, effective state policy) to create this environment. Singletons must invest in a strong society for their own sake.
Isn’t this what we see in growing gentrification? The renaissance of America’s downtowns?
How many of the divorced and separated have told you this truth? It is lonelier to live with the wrong person than to live alone.
The evidence suggests that people who live alone compensate by becoming more socially active than those who live with others, and that cities with high numbers of singletons enjoy a thriving public culture.
You can be alone, but you don’t have to be lonely.
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Klinenberg, Eric. Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Penguin Press, 2012.
Vespa, Jonathon, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider. United States, U.S. Census Bureau. America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012. Issued August 2013.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.