Singular Living: An Affirmative Choice

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In the1950s people who chose to be single were considered cursed. Now, it’s considered liberating. “For young adults it’s a sign of distinction and independence. It is a mark of success. Most people who live alone do it by choice. They willingly pay a premium for the privilege of living alone. Increasingly, people are not willing to settle for living with the ‘wrong’ person,” according to a study and book published by Sociologist Eric Klinenberg in 2012 – Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

In Going Solo, Klinenberg’s research also pulls back the curtain on assumptions about single people that have proven to be myths, such as “the single narcissist.” Single people are more likely to participate in the public realm volunteering time for causes, making monetary donations, and supporting the arts. In addition, heavy users of social media, a common pasttime among singles, are less likely to become solitary behind their devices, and more likely to follow up and interact in person.

Single person households currently represent 28% of the U.S. population, which is the highest rate in the history of this country, and the numbers keep going up. In the late 1950s, 70% of the adults in the U.S. were married. Today that population has dropped to 51%. This dramatic change in perspective and lifestyle over the last 50 years is a result of identifiable influences that have had a profound impact on urban planning, advertising, consumer products, and the economy.

The roots of the growing international phenomena of thriving singles may be found in the perquisites afforded the growing middle class, and interestingly, in Dr. Spock (the highly-influential pediatrician, not the Star Trek icon). As families could afford homes and apartments with a bedroom for each child, the process of early childhood individuation was cultivated. Dr. Benjamin Spock encouraged, even admonished parents to believe that placing infants in cribs, and not allowing them to sleep with parents was essential to raising an independent and self-sufficient child into adulthood. Increasingly, going out on one’s own was considered a rite of passage into adulthood.

These powerful influences were adopted at a time when one of the single largest generational populations was emerging: the post WWII baby boom. Klinenberg’s study asserts that:

“The extraordinary rise of living alone is among the greatest societal changes since the baby boom. Until recently, no culture in human history had sustained large numbers of people in places of their own.

Today more than 40% of households have just one occupant in cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Denver, St. Louis, and Seattle. In Manhattan, nearly 50% of households consist of a single occupant. The rate is similar in London and Paris, and a staggering 60% in Stockholm.”

Even during challenging economic times, single people have a profound and positive impact on society. “Singletons are fueling the economy. They spend more discretionary dollars than their married counterparts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that consumption by U.S. singles contributes $1.9 trillion to the economy annually,” explains Klinenberg.

Industries are taking notice, especially at a time when they are competing heavily for consumer’s disposable income. Advertisements are now prevalent showing single people instead of obvious couples. This highly targeted advertising is directly aimed at promoting products to the population of over 32 million single people who live alone in the U.S., and even greater numbers abroad.

Real estate developers are designing upscale rental properties to resemble destination living resorts, inviting social interaction for singles, and providing amenities like health clubs, movie theatres, and yes – day care for pets.

Klinenberg notes that: “The 24/7 work culture, which has shattered the barriers between personal and professional life, makes living alone more attractive. Over-connection is the problem of our time. Solitude gives us a chance to reconnect with ourselves and others with depth and meaning.”

Ironically, the modern family structure can be more disconnected than the lives of single people. Increasingly, families can be seen sharing the same living room, while being virtually oblivious of each other, as they text, iPad, iPod, Netflix, and online chat their way through an entire evening.

In contrast, singles tend to form “tribes”, often specifically for the purpose of breaking away from those devices, and interacting on a highly personal and social level. This has resulted in the vibrant gentrification of neighborhoods with the uptick of independent restaurants, coffee houses, wine bars, shops, and cultural events. “Neighborhood cultures develop around single life. Solo living is…in vogue.”

The food and beverage industry has observed and responded to this demographic accordingly. Advertisements for alcohol are featuring groups of friends vs. the limited strategy of couples. Restaurants are installing communal tables to enhance mingling opportunities. Travel tours are being designed to appeal to singles. Klinenberg recounts: “Even DeBeers, which long pitched its diamonds as the embodiment of a couple’s romantic bond [of engagement and marriage], has sold a ‘right hand ring’ for unmarried woman who want to treat themselves to elegant jewelry.”

In the U.S., when it comes to singles there are about 18 million women, and 14 million men. Home purchases by this demographic have escalated dramatically, especially among women, who buy at more than twice the rate of men. Singles purchase more than one-third of the homes in the U.S., and realtors are taking note, and marketing accordingly.

This trend can be expected to expand exponentially on an international level as economies continue to grow. Klinenberg has determined that “European countries already display higher rates of living alone than the U.S., and there are sharp increases in emerging markets such as China, India, and Brazil, that suggests that many choose to live alone whenever there’s sufficient wealth and comfort.”

As Klinenberg observes: “Not long ago most women (and a great number of men) viewed getting married as the key moment in the transition to adulthood. But for a growing number, buying (or establishing) a home has become a powerful way to pivot from one life stage to another. It’s a signal, to themselves and to those who know them, that they’re embracing their independence and that they’re ready to invest in themselves.”

Klinenberg concludes: “The Great Recession forced many Americans to
make sacrifices. The economic downturn has deprived many young people
of the means to go solo.” However none of that has deterred a significant
part of the population from savoring the epiphany that single living is an
affirmative choice.

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, and editor of the journal Public Culture.

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