the abundance of living alone
Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist who also happens to be a very good writer. Who needs a Malcolm Gladwell to popularize sociology when we already have good writers, like Klinenberg, in the discipline? His book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is an example of his ability to present empirical sociology in an engaging and lucid form.
Eric’s latest book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, expands on a theme of Heat Wave: that living alone is a growing trend, especially in urban areas, that has changed the nature of community and relationships. In his former book Eric showed that the people most susceptible to the negative consequences of a major environmental disaster, like a heat wave, were those who lived alone and lacked a social safety net to assist them during the crisis. Although in Heat Wave he focused on the deleterious effects of “living and dying alone,” this book takes a broader perspective by first trying to understand why more people are making this life choice and then by examining its consequences on life quality.
One of the interesting insights of Going Solo is that living alone has become easier for people to do because there are so many ways in which people can create and flourish abundant social lives outside the home. Facebook, email, texting, and other social media provide numerous points of contact that shorten the social distance between friends and family. Someone who lived alone 30 years ago might have felt isolated because it was much more costly and difficult to maintain close contact with friends, but now personal communication with friends and family has become so easy to do that it can almost be overwhelming.
One woman we interviewed, an attorney in her early thirties who works in politics, tells me: ‘Of my nine-hour day, I’m spending seven hours responding to emails’ – mostly job related, but many from friends and family too. ‘I also have, like, three hundred fifty people in my cell phone,’ she explains. It buzzes often, she checks it constantly, and she always tries to respond quickly, even if she’s out with friends and the call or message is from work.
This behavior is not unusual. Although we often associate living alone with social isolation, for most adults the reverse is true. In many cases, those who live alone are socially overextended, and hyperactive use of digital media keeps them even busier. The young urban professionals we interviewed reported that they struggle more with avoiding the distraction of always available social activity, from evenings with friends to online chatter, than with being disconnected. ‘Singles in the U.S.: The New Nuclear Family’ confirms this. The large-scale study by the market research firm Packaged Facts reports that those who live alone are more likely than others to say that the Internet has changed the way they spend their free time, more likely to be online late at night, and more likely to say that using the Net has cut into their sleep. Not that they are homebodies. According to a Pew Foundation study of social isolation and technology, heavy users of the Internet and social media are actually more likely than others to have large and diverse social networks, visit public places where strangers may interact, and participate in volunteer organizations (pg. 64).
If people used to seek domestic life in order to avoid social isolation, social technology seems to have weakened some of that need. People, especially those who can afford to stay connected and have a busy social life, may find pairing up and having kids less appealing than ever.
This book is full of fascinating facts and anecdotes about why and how people manage to live alone. This would be a great book for undergraduate courses in urban/community sociology, social networks, social problems, or even an introductory course in sociology.