Sixty years ago, 4 million Americans, or just under 10% of households across the country, lived alone. Made up of primarily male migrant workers, these solo-livers were transitioning to a working life in states like Alaska, Nevada, and Montana. Today, 31 million Americans live alone, making up a staggering 28% of households, and those 31 million are primarily located in urban areas as opposed to the sprawling suburban culture of the large Western states.
In his new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, author and New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg traces this trend back to the 50s and seeks to understand the conditions that make such an evolution possible. After a heat wave in Chicago resulted in more than 700 deaths in 1995, many of whom were living alone, Klinenberg became aware of this growing demographic and began to focus his research on it.
He believes that a number of factors have brought about the shift, from modern communication technology to changing societal norms. For young people today, living alone is considered a high priority and even a way to adulthood. Despite a bad labor market for young college graduates, more and more young men and women are quickly outgrowing the hassles of roommates and choosing to make sacrifices in order to have a place of their own. With the average age of marriage steadily increasing, young people also have a greater time period of solo living before moving in with a spouse. Older people are choosing to live alone more often as well, due partly to the aid of Social Security, pensions and overall prosperity from the Baby Boom era. They are also finding that living alone is not miserable or isolating, and that having a high degree of autonomy is important.
Mr Klinenberg also points out the great advances in technology that allow us to be connected with friends and relatives without needing to be in their close physical proximity. With almost all adults having a smart phone within arm’s reach at all times, social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace, and video communication software like Skype, people can stay in contact and even see each other while still having the luxury of retreating back to an isolated living space.
The impact of the increasing number of single households is beginning to be felt in the housing market, where Mr Klinenberg believes we are simply not prepared. He worries that we have built suburban areas that won’t fit future lifestyles, and sees a lack of single-occupant housing as a potentially serious downfall in housing options. This means that we should expect an increase in cost for single-occupant housing, since housing markets are inherently difficult to re-structure and the demand continues to increase.