A recent experiment in human history: living alone

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently spoke in Boston about a relatively recent trend in human history: living alone.

The stats are arresting. In this country, approximately 31 million people live alone, and one-person households make up 28 percent of the total, tying with childless couples as the most common residential type — “more common,’’ Klinenberg pointed out, “than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.’’

Those who live alone are mostly middle-age, with young adults the fastest-growing segment, and there are more women than men. No longer a transitional stage, living alone is one of the most stable household arrangements. And while one-person households were once scattered in low-density rural settings, they’re now concentrated in cities. “In Manhattan,’’ he said, “more than half of all residences are one-person dwellings.’’

You’d think that the United States, with its cult of individualism, would be the world leader in living alone, but it’s not. Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, among others, come in ahead of us…

But despite a chapter that expands his examination of dying alone in the city, Klinenberg’s new work, based on a study of hundreds of one-person households in several cities and forthcoming as a book next year, takes a much more positive view of living alone. He treats it as an important rite of passage, our emergent standard measure of full adulthood, one for which our society begins preparing us from infancy onward — by making it normal to teach babies to sleep alone and for middle-class children to have their own rooms, and by making it convenient for young adults to carry on full and rewarding lives while living alone.

Klinenberg makes an interesting point about how this idea of being alone is one that many families stress from a young age. This trend of living alone as adults may just be a logical consequence of socializing children with these ideas.

Additionally, it sounds like Klinenberg is not as pessimistic as some who argue that American society has become more fragmented in recent decades. Indeed, Klinenberg makes it sound like living alone could provide people the ability to be even more social.

One way this could change society is in how people understand themselves. Living with other people is revealing in that it demonstrates how others operate in day-to-day life and also reveals individual’s faults and positive traits. This sort of interaction is hard to duplicate outside of the home.

This trend could also raise questions about traditional understandings of families and adulthood. People who choose to have families or live with others may become those who have to explain themselves. Social policy might need to be altered to limit privileges for families or provide new privileges for those living alone.

In the end, what would Klinenberg say about accumulated thoughts over the centuries about communal life, such as Donne’s suggestion that “no man is an island”? Have we simply moved on to a better understanding of our lives as individuals and a society? How will “community” be redefined?