Thursday, May 10, 2012


Eric Klinenberg's new book "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone" explores a phenomenon I know very well.  Growing up, I didn't encounter many adults who lived alone. There was my grandmother, but she only lived on her own after my grandfather died.  Widowed in her 60s, his death gave her the freedom to finally get a driver's license, a car and move to the country.  She left Manhattan for a big, new house on Long Island and spread her wings.  Her sister moved in with her, but several years later she died, and my grandmother lived alone, happily, for decades.  I remember how tranquil her life seemed when I visited.  She easily filled the hours painting, reading, watching PBS, having cocktails with friends, traveling to exotic cities like Cairo or St. Petersburg, entertaining, winning at canasta, or gardening.  In her 90s, she confided in me that she wouldn't have lived as long if she had been with my grandfather all these years.  I believed her.  Although I didn't know them as a couple, from the stories, they had an exciting, good life.  But he wasn't easy, a strong willed Italian barber from Naples who demanded lots of attention.  He dominated their household, and her life.  I'm most certain the quality of my grandmother's life increased when she was on her own, thus spiking her longevity.  During my visits, our day would end with a lovely dinner, she was an inspired gourmet cook, served with china and linen napkins and punctuated by intellectual conversation.  When the dishes were washed and the kitchen reassembled to perfection she would unapologetically say goodnight, and retire to her bedroom to read her latest book from the library or the day's New York Times.  She would brush out her long auburn curls which rested in a loose bun on the crown of her head and place her emeralds and pearls in china bowls on her vanity.  I would follow suit, climbing into bed in the guest room with a book or magazine and read for hours, a habit started from those visits and embraced ever since.  In countless ways, my grandmother was a trendsetter.  I think of her as I read statistics from Klinenberg's book, and realize I'm just part of the trend.
Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others — even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together alone […] [T]oday, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.
In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households […] Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million — roughly one out of every seven adults — live alone. 
People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type — more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, the roommate or group home.

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