Why more Americans are living alone

A new book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to explain why more American are living alone:

Despite these risks, more and more people all over the world have decided that living alone is their best option. In the United States, 31 million people—one in seven adults—live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28% of households. That’s up from just 9% in 1950. Americans may think of themselves as uniquely self-reliant, thanks perhaps to Emerson, but the trend is even more pronounced in other affluent countries…

Why are people making this choice? For the many women who outlive their husbands, healthy single older men are scarce. Young and old alike, meanwhile, recognize that family togetherness, when it is not wonderful, can be conflict-ridden and downright awful. Roommates, at any age, hold little appeal. Not least, people go solo because they can afford it. Living alone is a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent.

But people also seem motivated by a loss of faith in the very idea of family. Mr. Klinenberg quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that, as soon as people stop taking traditional arrangements for granted, “they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail.” Or as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it, today “one’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.”…

Most important, perhaps, is the increased value we place on autonomy. Since Dr. Spock, mothers and infants have departed from the age-old practice of sleeping together, and middle-class babies are now often placed in their own rooms. Swelling home sizes made this possible; from 1960 to 1980, the ratio of bedrooms to children in the average U.S. family rose to 1.1 from 0.7, so that nowadays parents and kids are rarely together in the same room—even for eating. Students increasingly expect a private room at college. Assuming that they do share quarters for a while after graduation, the move to an apartment of one’s own is now, writes Mr. Klinenberg, “the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming an adult.”

The review suggests Klinenberg thinks is a lasting trend but we’ll have to wait and see. What would it take for people to reverse the trend and have more people living in households or to want to take on the responsibility of having a family?

Perhaps Klinenberg doesn’t have the data to address this but I wonder how much people living alone interact with others – are they more involved in organizations, have higher levels of civic engagement, are more involved with others online, etc.?

It is interesting to think about this on college campuses – does anyone have numbers about how many college students do live in single rooms or how many would like to? Of course, few college students have ever lived with others in the same room when they arrive on campus so outside of marriage, this may be the only “normal” time for this to happen. If living in single rooms becomes a norm on campus, does this significantly alter the college experience?

22 thoughts on “Why more Americans are living alone

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