More Americans live alone -- and are doing just fine
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The work of gymnasts is as close to magic as human beings come. All that twisting and flying through the air; those preposterous leaps from one thin pole to another; the blur of legs scissoring around a pommel horse.
Though gymnastics has been fashioned into a team event, every triumph of skill looks purely personal. So does every fall.
If sports supply the metaphors that define us, gymnastics, with its tension between individual glory and the group, is looking more American than ever. Today, growing numbers of Americans are choosing to live alone.
Sometimes called singletons, they now constitute more than half of American adults. Yet this remarkable change has yet to truly sink in.
The number of elderly singles is especially striking. According to the Census, nearly a third of people 65 and older live alone. Remarkably, their numbers include some 800,000 people with Alzheimer's disease, suggesting a growing policy challenge. According to the Alzheimer's Association, many in this group have no designated caregivers to step in when help is needed.
Eric Klinenberg, an ethnographer at New York University, explores the rise of singletons in a recently published book, "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone." Unlike many social scientists, he does not reflexively lament the rise of individualism, nor presume an accompanying loss of community.
Instead, he found young people thriving as they acquired self-sufficiency. He found middle-aged people, especially women, zestfully pursuing their interests. He found divorced people engaged with family, friends, work and other activities. He found widowed people going to brunch and the theater, and catching up on their reading.
Other researchers have found that single people contribute more to the community than married people do. A report last year from the Council on Contemporary Families noted that singles are more likely to raise money for charities or work distributing food.
Further, while married people have high volunteer rates associated with their own children's activities, unmarried people are more likely to volunteer as mentors to other people's children. They are also more likely to visit with neighbors. They are even more likely to offer routine help to their parents.
Even single people with children are more likely to contribute outside their immediate families than married people.
Yet single life continues, subtly, to be stigmatized. And public policy (regarding taxes, insurance and health care, for instance) still tends to smile on married life.
Unquestionably, single life has its drawbacks.
It can be isolating, especially for older men. Older women appear better at building social networks and managing forms of what Mr. Klinenberg calls "intimacy at a distance."
Younger adults living alone may suffer the onset of serious mental illness, and quietly disintegrate beyond the notice of others. Single women in their late 30s can mourn the passage of their reproductive years. Loner males can get lost in violent fantasies.
Yet, especially in cities, Americans are embracing the opportunities that come with single life. They are also embracing the solitude. Over-connected and overcommitted, Americans crave private time as never before.
Paradoxically, living alone can recharge people, enabling them to get out and coach quiz-bowl teams or clean up parks, even to commit to new relationships. Possibly, as more Americans find solitude, we could see a wave of spiritual renewal as well.
Americans may be spending longer intervals of their lives alone, but (especially given our longer lives) that is only part of the story. If you are currently single, please remember: The team needs you more than anybody knew.
First Published September 23, 2012 12:00 am