Living Alone is Not Always Lonely: A Review of Going Solo

By Gal Kramer
Social Connectedness Fellow

Between 1951 and 2016, the percentage of Canadians over the age of 15 living alone increased from 1.8 to 13.9 percent, with more than 28 percent of households being identified as single-person households.[1] This is the highest such proportion in Canadian history. Countries like Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands have an even greater share of single-person households at closer to 40 percent. These numbers have been increasing for the past 50 years and are projected to keep rising.[2]

Distribution (in percentage) of private households by household size, Canada 1961 to 2011 [3]

 
Amidst concerns about the impact of social isolation on individuals, Eric Klinenberg offers a new perspective on the topic of living alone in his most recent book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living AloneKlinenberg is a prominent sociologist from New York University who first gained recognition for his earlier book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. In that book, he details how social isolation contributed to an astonishing number of deaths during a blistering heat wave in Chicago in 1995.

Going Solo delves into the experience of living alone and what it means for how we connect to others. Notably, Klinenberg describes living alone as “one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”[4]

However, the author makes a clear and important distinction between living alone and being socially isolated or lonely. While the two experiences may be correlated, Klinenberg argues, living alone does not necessarily cause social isolation. As he explains, “…for most adults the reverse is true. In many cases, those who live alone are socially overextended, and hyperactive use of digital media keeps them even busier.”[5] Moreover, he cites a study concluding that people who live alone are more likely to take art classes, go to public events, eat at restaurants and shop with friends.[6] In a reference to Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, about the increase in social isolation in America, Klinenberg states, “No one really bowls alone.”[7]

Klinenberg suggests that living alone has become a choice, not just a default living arrangement; for example, following a spousal death or divorce. Various social trends from the last half century, he argues, have created the opportunity for so many people to choose this lifestyle. From the increase in personal wealth to the communications revolution, it has become easier to connect with those who are not in our immediate vicinity.

Changes to women’s status in society (including their more prominent role in the workforce) have also played a major role in this new trend, as most who live alone are women. In addition, cities, which house the majority of the world’s population, are developing spaces that encourage people to come together no matter their living status.[8]

In summarizing his central argument, Klinenberg states:  

“We have embarked on this massive social experiment of living alone because we believe it serves a purpose. Living alone helps us pursue sacred modern values—individual freedom, personal control, and self-realization—whose significance endures from adolescence to our final days. It allows us to do what we want, when we want on our own terms.”[9]

Klinenberg asserts that those who live alone lead more active social lives and create more connections with those outside their home, beyond digital connections. However, we must not forget about the fundamental social needs of human beings and the barriers to connectedness that many people face. With that said, Klinenberg’s book presents a new positive viewpoint, one that does not negate our ability to both live alone and be socially connected.

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[1] Statistics Canada. “Fifty years of families in Canada: 1961 to 2011.” Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-312-X2011003. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, last modified December 22, 2012. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-312-x/98-312-x2011003_1-eng.cfm.

[2] Statistics Canada. “Canadian households in 2011: Type and growth.” Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-312-X2011003. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, last modified December 22, 2012. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-312-x/98-312-x2011003_2-eng.cfm.

[3] Statistics Canada. “Fifty years of families in Canada: 1961 to 2011.” Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-312-X2011003. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, last modified December 22, 2012. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/as-sa/98-312-x/98-312-x2011003_1-eng.cfm.

[4] Klinenberg, Eric. “Going solo: the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone.” (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 6.

[5] Ibid., 64.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 109.

[8] Ibid., 11-27.

[9] Ibid., 17-18.