The brave new world of living single

Increasingly, living alone is a perk of those who can afford it: “It allows us to do what we want, when we want, on our own terms,” writes the author, a sociology professor at New York University who interviewed 300 singletons for the book.

“The collective project of living alone grew out of the culture of modern cities, not the monastic or transcendental traditions,” writes Mr. Klinenberg, pointing to “adult playgrounds” like gyms, bars and coffee shops that let urbanites mingle, even as they enjoy their own spaces.

Today, 31 million people live alone in the United States – that’s 28 per cent of all households, compared to just 9 per cent in 1950. The “remarkable social experiment” of going solo now helps define modern culture, argues the author, who spoke to The Globe and Mail from New York.

What’s the difference between “singletons” as you call them, and singles?

Singles are people who are not married. In the United States, it’s about 49 per cent of the population now. Singletons, as I define them, are people who live alone – 32.7 million according to the latest census estimates. They account for about 28 per cent of American households. We have to make really clear distinctions between living alone and being alone, and also between living alone and being lonely. They’re very different kinds of things.

“Solitude can be experienced alone or with others”: You’re quoting Sasha Cagen, founder of Quirkyalones, a movement that advocates for people who enjoy being single.

That’s right. Many people that we interviewed said there was nothing more lonely than living with the wrong person.

Loneliness expert John Cacioppo talks about that too, the lack of time for oneself in “harried marriages.”

There’s a concept that sociologists are using more these days called the “greedy marriage.” Marriages can be really good for you, but the relationship plus the domestic responsibilities that often come with it can also pull you away from other things. I say this as a guy who’s married with two young children. I’m not against marriage and I’m not advocating living alone. What I’m trying to do is understand this incredible social change, how it happened and what it means for us.

You argue that we use wealth to “separate from each other” in solo living arrangements, and you point to an intensifying “cult of the individual.”

It used to be the case that you really had to justify to yourself and to people around you why you wanted to get divorced. Today, in many communities, if you’re married and it’s not going well you have to justify staying in it. People of my generation and younger grew up in the throes of the divorce revolution.

A lot of the younger people I spoke to said they didn’t feel like they’d be capable, or that it would be irresponsible of them to get married before they really knew they could take care of themselves. I’m not saying people want to be alone or be isolated. They want to go out, meet new people and have sex. They just don’t want to live with the wrong people.

What do you say to critics who see the trend as a threat to family values, who suggest that it makes us self-absorbed?

The fact that people live alone for long stretches of their lives and then have successful marriages when they’re older suggests that is not a compelling argument. The fact that people who live alone are more likely to volunteer in civic organizations really contradicts that message. The fact that people living alone are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbours should trouble this idea that singletons are selfish.

Who suffers more of the stigma: men or women? The spinster? The cat lady?

Yes, women get more of the stigma. A particularly difficult moment is when they reach their mid-30s to early 40s and have to make decisions about whether they’d like to have biological children. People see friends and family members who project onto them their own anxiety about their situation. It’s very unusual for men to express real concern about waiting too long before getting married.

You point out that living alone is a “cyclical condition, not a permanent one.”

No one’s making a vow to stay single. They’re moving in and out of different conditions.

Yet when Ms. Cagen announced that she was ready for a partner, some Quirkyalones accused her of abandoning the cause.

I don’t think she should have to be committed to being single or living alone for the rest of her life. She’s dealing with the fact that there is stigma. In a 1957 study, 80 per cent of the Americans surveyed by a University of Michigan psychologist said that adults who wanted to stay unmarried were either sick, neurotic or immoral. Obviously our attitudes have changed quite a lot since then, but there’s still some stigma.

The fastest-growing demographic for solo living is 18 to 34, you write. What about these boomerang kids who can’t afford to live on their own, moving back in with mom and dad?

In the last couple of years, there has been a slowing and a slight downtick, but it’s surprisingly low: It went from 12 per cent of all young adults living alone to 11 per cent. In 1950, about 1 per cent of young adults had places of their own.

You write that Thoreau’s mom swung by Walden Pond regularly with dinner.

Certainly different than the mythology, isn’t it?

We have this immense anxiety about the fate of family members who live unaccompanied. What happens when all those singletons get old and infirm, with family far away?

We have really failed to prepare for this incredible social change and I worry about the fate of people who are not just alone but isolated. We’re doing much less for them than we should be. I wish we had invested more in places that allow older people to live alone but also be connected to others. The book ends in Stockholm, which does a much better job of that.

Sixty per cent of people in Stockholm live alone. You write about one residence there called Collective House, conceived in the 1930s by planners and feminists for working women living alone, with daycare, laundry service and a restaurant in the building.

There were also pneumatic tubes inside the building that allow the kitchen to shoot individual meals up to residents. If they want to stay home, they can. The idea was that, as a society, they’d support people who want to live alone.

You also mention a newer communal residence for people over 40 whose “needs are no longer dictated by family and children.” Sounds like a premature retirement home.

It’s a way of preventing people from moving into these geriatric ghettos, which are really undesirable. This is a place that allows people to have individual apartments, but also there’s a common kitchen and people have to volunteer to cook a few days every month. There are exercise classes, a garden, a library and movie nights.

In New York, there used to be hotels like Barbizon that were just for young women moving into the city. That has disappeared. In Amsterdam today there’s one collective housing project that [New York writer]Kate Bolick talks about where women can move in, so long as they’re between the ages of 35 and 65.

The idea is that people can provide each other with community, companionship and support when they need it. It won’t turn into a singles’ party scene or a place where people go to die.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


Relax, you’ve arrived


Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.

The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.

To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .

Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.

Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.

In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.

Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.

via Relax, you’ve arrived | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation.

Momentum and inertia

I’ve done a lot to get traction in my life as a newly single person in the last month, and it seems that whenever I initiate a new task along that path that it gets easier to pedal.  It feels very much like riding a bike:  you start out in a low gear, and as you get moving you can shift into a higher one.  You’re moving along at a quicker pace without exerting any more effort.

On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like I have a lot of stamina, and my “single muscles” seem weak.  But I know from past experience that if you ride your bike often, it gets easier and easier.

Avoiding Reattachment

The last time I got divorced I was so incredibly lonely that I couldn’t wait to find new companionship (and sex).  I had so many online dates that some days I had more than one, and I was leaving one woman to streak across town on the expressway to meet with the next.  I only survived being unattached for about 7 months that time.

This time I caught myself doing that same thing.  I was texting my local Facebook friend, trying to arrange a meet-up.  I suddenly realized that I was doing that old pony ride thing.  You know at the summer fair – the pony rides?  You pay a buck and get on and ride around and around in a circle for a few minutes and then get off?

I’m glad I had the awareness and presence of mind to pull back after a day or so.  There’s all sorts of anecdotes about fools returning to what they originally escaped from, only to be caught again.  “Fool me once…”, and you know the rest of that saying.

A person is very vulnerable when separation first happens.  Someone described it to me once like a crab when it sheds it shell (molting).  It’s incredibly vulnerable to predators until it grows a new one.  It needs to find a safe place during that process to avoid being eaten.

Hopefully I’ve learned.  There’s a big difference between being told something, or reading something, mentally processing it and concluding that it’s correct – the difference between that and Knowing.

Be especially careful when you’re molting, friends.

Lonesome George dies after not so lonely life

And while George may have been lonesome for being the last of his kind, with his potential mates, and scientists, journalists, and the public endeared to him, he lived a full life. Mel remembers delighting with the others as they saw him mating. “We started laughing, saying he wasn’t so lonely anymore,” she says.

via Galapagos giant tortoise Lonesome George dies after not so lonely life –


One month on my own!  I’m sure a month won’t seem so significant some time in the future, but for me it was time to briefly reflect.  In retrospect it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.  Maybe because I was a bit in a fog or a time-warp or something.

It feels like a first significant hurdle, and it can’t be predicted what will come, but I feel good about it so far.

Some of what I consider to be accomplishments:

  • I made the house like I want it to be.  I cleaned, rearranged stuff, threw some stuff out.  I went around with touch-up paint and filled nail holes where certain pictures used to be.
  • I got my own bank account and credit card and put together my separate budget.  I setup the mortgage and other bills related to the house to come out of my separate account instead of the joint one.
  • I booked a cheap vacation for myself next December in Jamaica.
  • I bought my own cemetery plot.  I know, that’s a weird one, but I wanted to put some control over at least that part of my destiny…
  • I met a local Facebook friend in person, and we talked about going camping together.  She might even go on a road trip with me in a couple of months!  It’s good to have some companionship after being used to always living with someone for the last 35 years but often feeling alone.
  • I made a pen and am now raising some pheasant chicks in the woods in the back yard.  Just because I can.
  • I realized I actually like briefs better than boxers, so I bought some.
  • I have lost 12 pounds by eating the way I like to eat.

I’m starting to get a handle on “thinking for one”.  I’m in such a habit of factoring in someone else’s expectations on just about every decision I make.  I bought some fish and cooked it in the house and ate it (she wouldn’t stand for it).  I stayed up past 10 p.m. one night instead of going to bed at 8:00.  I watch all the nature flicks on TV that I want to.  I deleted all the Real Housewife settings on the DVR.

A lot of this is about me and I.  But that was significantly absent in the past.  A better balance will develop over time.

Thanks for listening.  Comments and feedback welcome.