2:00 pm Mar. 7, 2012
In a packed room at DUMBO’s PowerHouse Arena, 75 people sat together to consider what it means to be alone.
“I think the worst thing about living alone is I can’t bear it when I run out of milk for my morning coffee,” said The Atlantic contributing editor Kate Bolick. “I’m dead serious. Nothing ruins my day more.”
The lecture, moderated by writer Daniel Smith, reflected on two recent looks at the rise of ‘single-dom.’
Bolick’s recent Atlantic article drew a new map of the marriage market, highlighting increasing male joblessness and a growing segment of women unworried about getting married. She sat next to New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg, whose new book, Going Solo, looks at the social change inherent with the rising numbers of people who are unmarried and living alone.
Klinenberg said there isn’t yet a vocabulary for the growing group.
“What I came to believe over the course of working on this book is that the rise of living alone represents literally the biggest social change of the last 60 years that we have failed to name or identify,” said Klinenberg.
He said that before the end of the 20th century, there had never been a time with so many people living alone, but he said that that one out of every seven adults live alone and 28 percent of households are single. In Manhattan, over half of the dwellings are for single residents. And, Klinenberg pointed out, the phenomenon is even more popular internationally.
“Stockholm is about 60 percent one-person households. [In] Paris, ‘city of lovers,’ more people live alone there than Manhattan. So it could still be the city of lovers, but ever-changing lovers.”
Klinenberg said that advances in women’s rights, technology, and more affluent market economies helped the demographic shift away from young marriages.
He noted that when he began work on his book, originally titled Alone in America, it had a darker tone that initially covered the fracturing inherent in an increasingly atomized society. Those tend to sell better, Klinenberg admitted, pointing to books like Bowling Alone.
“You should know that I had amazing incentive to write a book like that,” he said.
But as he researched, he saw unmarried people were more likely to go out with friends, join civic organizations, go to restaurants, and attend events like book readings.
Bolick offered a more celebratory and personal take than Klinenberg, who is married with two children. She said the word ‘single’ tends to sound either pejorative, or, used in the context of things like ‘singles nights,’ to summon notions of obsession with dating and romance.
“So there is this very weird new chapter in our lives where once upon a time ... finding your mate and settling into that new life happened much more quickly, and now here we are spending year after year doing that,” she said.
She added that the tendency toward obsession with romance denigrated the act of finding love.
“There is no one conversation about marriage and there is no one conversation about being single,” she said.
Bolick said a new model of “consumptive coupling” happened as highly educated people married each other because of the same interests. With their disposable incomes the couples can travel and go to nice restaurants, but the lack of class mixing leads to increased social stratification and a growing underclass.
Overall, she said, the point of talking about living alone was to understand how we live and what it means to live alone, either by choice, divorce, or death of a spouse. Part of that, she explained, was the issue of how to deal with single parents or aging singles in need of support.
Klinenberg agreed, pointing out that many places Americans live aren’t organized in ways to accommodate people with both services and domestic autonomy, and called assisted-living facilities ‘impossibly expensive.’
“They’re a place for the most affluent Americans and basically no one else,” he said.
Bolick said she the challenge was to combine living alone with the need to create communal spaces.
“There’s a great joy to be had in living alone, but to do it well, you need to temper it with a lot of other interaction. And how will we frame that? And how will we change our towns and our suburbs?”
After an audience member asked why people are so drawn to marriage, Klinenberg said that good marriages were great for people, but that people rushing to marry often found themselves feeling alone in bad marriages.
“We’re very hopeful people,” Klinenberg said. “We marry earlier, still, than a lot of Europeans. But then we remarry more. And we remarry again.”
Afterward, the crowd milled around in the bookstore. Some stood in line to have Klinenberg sign copies of his book, some chatted, and others lingered alone in the aisles. Around one table of books, a small group formed. As they talked about the zoning challenges of building single-oriented housing in New York City, they briefly bonded together about living alone.
More by this author:
- Director Andrew Bujalski celebrates 10 years of 'Funny Ha Ha' with a big fan, Lena Dunham
- A festival built on the hope that film can bridge the deep political divide over Israel