In the United States we recently crossed some demographic line relating to the number of people who live alone. I was holding forth on this to a lady friend recently and got the numbers perfectly wrong. Let me simply quote Nathan Heller:
Today, more than fifty per cent of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of households have just one resident . . . .
Thirty-one million Americans live alone. Yet, these statements raise lots of questions that I am too lazy to research. Who qualify as residents? Is a packing crate a “household?” I assume we are talking single adult residents without children, however “adult” may be defined. Are we counting prisoners that are being held in solitary confinement? Or not? I presume that those who cohabit only with a dog or cat are counted as living alone, which is not truly living alone as we all know. Cohabiting with only a turtle, however, should count as living alone, in my opinion.
One thing is for sure. The unprecedented number of people living alone has provided fertile subject matter for magazine writers, newspaper columnists, bloggers, and the like. And authors. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist, recently published his book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin). I have bumped into several references to that book in articles recently, and none of the reviewers seem to be able to draw any cogent conclusions from it. If those bright people cannot, why should I read the book myself and try?
There is something unsatisfying about most of these essays and articles that I have read on the subject of living alone. It is extremely difficult to make any meaningful, general statements on the subject of why so many people are doing it. On the one hand you might have, say, an elderly widow now living alone, missing the beloved husband she has lost. On the other hand you might have an ambitious young man who lives alone in order to work long hours and move at the drop of hat if he must in connection with his profession.
Take the Open Salon blogging community for example. If one frequents that on line place for a time and starts following certain writers fairly regularly, one soon learns that many of them are living alone. Can one make any general statement as to why that is so even with regard to this little group? There are as many answers to that question as there are people living alone.
One general statement that I have encountered often does make sense to me. Living alone is expensive. Or, putting it a different way, one has to have the financial wherewithal to live alone in order to do it. Given the large number of people who now live alone, does this mean that if people can afford to live alone, they then prefer to live alone? I do not think one can draw that conclusion.
And I suppose we could say that one has to have the skills to take care of one’s own physical necessaries. In the case of two different men whom I know personally, I would fear for their physical survival if they did not have a woman living with them and taking care of them. Beyond that one begins to encounter meaningless discussions of amorphous concepts like the “spiritual autonomy” of people who live alone. Meaning, I guess, that they find themselves to be sufficiently bearable company such that they need not live with somebody else in order to supplement their own company. I guess.
These kinds of observations, however, wander further and further away from the question of why so many people live alone and deal more with how they live alone. Yet, again, general statements about how people live alone are difficult to come by, too. There is something we might say, I suspect, that applies to the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the male and the female who live alone. Steven Kurutz addresses this in a New York Times article entitled One Is the Quirkiest Number. Everyone who lives alone develops their own strange living habits that others would regard as eccentric. Relating to everything from eating habits to sleep patterns to bathroom practices to nudity. Yet when one considers them, they make sense in the context of living alone.
The little ninety-year-old lady living alone who never closes the bathroom door anymore does not strike me as eccentric. I mean, why bother? That makes perfect sense to me. As does nudity. Of course clothing is optional if one is living alone. Wearing perfectly weird but perfectly comfortable clothing ensembles around the house makes sense, too. Further in connection with clothing, consider the young lady who removes clothing items piece by piece from the dryer only as she needs them. That strikes me as a brilliant, labor saving strategy.
I also suspect that many people living alone no longer eat “meals” at home as we generally understand that term, which I do not find to be strange at all. Nor does that imply that people living alone are necessarily eating in a less healthful manner because they no longer eat “meals.” In fact they are “foraging” just as their hunter-gatherer ancestors did.
I have lived alone for some years now, and God knows that I have developed my own quirks as a result. The same question has arisen in my mind that has arisen in the minds of those whom Mr. Kurutz interviewed. If I had to cohabit with someone else again, could I straighten up and fly right? I think so. Assuming that the person with whom I was cohabiting would on occasion—and only on occasion—enjoy going naked with me into the kitchen in the middle of the night to eat peanut butter.
The Disconnect: Why are so many Americans living by themselves?, Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, 16 April 2012, p. 110.