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Only the Lonely

IN THE LATE 1990s, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg was working on a book about the Chicago heat wave of 1995 when he made an unnerving discovery: of the disaster’s estimated 739 victims, hundreds were what he called “singletons”—people who lived alone and “died not only because of the weather, but also because they had grown dangerously isolated while the rest of the city turned away from them.” Klinenberg’s realization that there existed within Chicago “a secret society of people who live and die alone”—and that they were by no means an isolated minority—was the grim inspiration for his new book. Its subject is, by most measures, one of the largest demographic shifts in recent history. “More than 50 percent of American adults are single,” he writes, “and 31 million—roughly one out of every seven adults—live alone.” Globally, that number reaches around 202 million.

In spite of his bleak introduction to the topic, Klinenberg’s aim is not to moralize about singledom or to add to the growing body of crisis literature about the state of loneliness and middle-class adulthood. (Look up the phrase “emerging adulthood” or read any of the Atlantic’s recent marriage-anxiety features for a fuller explanation.) Rather, he is out to foreground living alone in debates where it tends to lurk in the background—conversations about the decline of marriage, real estate costs, or the isolating effects of technology. And his case is convincing: while we have had “about 200,000 years of experience with collective living,” never before in the history of human society have this many people been on their own. With its casual academicism and zeitgeisty appeal, Going Solo shares a great deal with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but Klinenberg has little interest in casting himself as a prophet of doom. “Facing up to the fact that since any one of us could live alone someday,” he remarks, “it’s in everyone’s interest to make it a healthier, happier, more socially engaging experience.”

After a brief foray into the background of American individualism, Klinenberg opens his study with a guided history of “solo-dwelling.” (He is a fan of clunky neologisms). Though living alone has traditionally mapped onto the growth of cities, its first real stirrings date back to the 1960s, when women’s liberation expanded job prospects, and a booming housing market drew young people to cities—and cultural and social opportunities kept them there. Ever the cultural bellwether, T.G.I. Friday’s became the country’s first singles bar in 1965, when it opened on 63rd Street in Manhattan. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also around the time that retirement homes came into vogue.

Appraising the psychological shift in a cover story for New York, Tom Wolfe concluded in 1976 that decades of wartime spending had precipitated what amounted to a sea change in American social character. For the first time, Americans were able to take what had once been an aristocratic luxury—“remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self ... and observing, studying, and doting on it”—and adapt it into a middle-class value.

An early chapter in Going Solo takes Klinenberg to an adult kickball tournament, an annual affair held in a Brooklyn neighborhood where adolescence is routinely suspended into one’s thirties. Contra Putnam, Klinenberg interprets the spread of these kinds of organizations as evidence that active social networks and tight-knit friend groups (what the journalist Ethan Watters calls “urban tribes”) are not only common, but now tend to stand in for families. And just as friends are replacing spouses, he notes, workplaces are increasingly replacing domestic life.

Given that more and more companies require employees to be on call 24-hours-a-day (or, for junior members of white-shoe banks and law firms, to spend upwards of seventy hours a week at the office), “for a rising generation of aspiring professionals, the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family” (italics author's own). So companies are compensating. Those that can afford it not only provide employees with childcare, on-site laundry service, and free haircuts, but also built-in social environments for their employees. Justin, a journalist and single-dweller, tells Klinenberg that his job gives him all the company he needs. “I’m surrounded by a lot of people with similar interests.”

The rest of Going Solo takes readers from middle age through retirement. These chapters, with titles such as “The Capacity to Live Alone,” “Together Alone,” and “Protecting the Self,” are organized around interviews with people who have elected—or resigned themselves—to living alone. Aside from interviewees who never married, there are those whose jobs preclude live-in relationships; those who want the freedom to indulge “weird habits”; or those like the woman who informed Klinenberg that she “was never more miserable in my life than when I was married.” At this point, the book takes on a new gravitas. Though Klinenberg is careful to distinguish between people who choose to live alone and those who do so unhappily, in some instances the distinction can get hazy. Many are genuinely pleased to be independent, but others flirt with loneliness and chronic depression.

So thinking back to Chicago and the ubiquity of single living, Klinenberg poses a major question: what is the best way to keep our brave new society of singletons functional and happy? One answer is to be found—of course—in Scandinavia. Though nearly the entire book is set in America, Klinenberg ends in Stockholm with a profile of a collective house that dates back to the 1930s. With shared facilities and independent apartments, residents get the best of both worlds: the social benefits of living communally, and the individual satisfaction of having their own space. The model’s success has been such that the Swedish government took it to heart in the 1960s, when they broke ground on a mass public housing project for people who wanted to live alone. With examples such as this one, Klinenberg implies that Sweden has already realized what the United States has yet to comprehend: that a coherent approach to mass singledom is not only a social question, but also a political one. With more people living alone every year, the moment may not be far off.

Jessica Loudis is an assistant editor at Bookforum.