Welcome to a conversation with author Eric Klinenberg, posted in celebration of today’s release of the paperback edition of Going solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone.
I was so delighted when I first read Eric Klinenberg’s book. That was in the early weeks of 2012, when the hardcover edition of the book had just been published, and it was still anyone’s guess as to how it would be received. I wanted it to succeed because it told such a compelling and even-handed story of what it means to live alone for the millions of people going so and the societies they are changing with their choices.
I rooted for Going Solo because it pushed back with hard data and scholarly wisdom against the supercilious “oh, you poor thing, you don’t have anyone – and you are destroying society!” punditry about solo life. I thought the book had a good chance. Eric Klinenberg had already had a stellar reputation as a scholar and author, and he had the backing of a prestigious publisher (Penguin) putting its resources behind a big-time book tour. But in publishing, you just never know.
Now, a year later, I think I can declare that Going Solo has launched the national (and international) discussion I was craving. Everyone has been talking about it. By everyone, I include Time magazine (they called Going Solo the #1 of the Top 10 ideas changing our lives), the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the Economist, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, PBS, NPR (including the Diane Rehm show) and so many more that you will just have to head over to his website to see them all.
Bella: I have talked to people who have attended talks you have given about Going Solo, and there is one particular story they like to retell. That’s the one about the conversations you had with people at your publishing house about what the title of your book should be. Maybe one of the reasons that anecdote is resonant is that it so aptly captures the tension around what it means to live alone. Want to share that story with the “Living Single” readers?
Eric Klinenberg: When I pitched the book to publishers, the working title was Alone in America, and I fully expected to write a book about all the social and psychological problems stemming from the incredible spike in living alone. There was ample precedent for this kind of title. The best-selling books in the history of American sociology include The Lonely Crowd, The Fall of Public Man, The Pursuit of Solitude, and Bowling Alone, and my first book, Heat Wave, is about a disaster in which hundreds of people died alone. I had already selected the cover image: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which I’d seen often at the Art Institute in Chicago, where I grew up.
When I got deeper into my research, however, I discovered that the rise of singles and singletons (my term for those who live alone) is a far more interesting and important social change than most people had registered. It has changed how we understand ourselves, how we become adults, how we manage our relationships, how we age, and how we die. It has affected our families, our communities, our cities, and – as we saw in 2012 – our politics. It has shaped all of us, even those who don’t live alone.
Going Solo says something very different from Alone in America. For instance, it acknowledges the simple but surprising fact that nearly everyone who lives alone opts to do, preferring it to less expensive arrangements such as living with roommates or family members. It also deemphasizes loneliness, in part because one of my most powerful findings is that nothing is lonelier than living with the wrong person.
Bella: In all the coverage, who really “got it” about what Going Solo was all about? (Present company excluded,of course!) Or, if you prefer, who extended the conversation in the most thoughtful way?
Eric Klinenberg: As you know, any book about being single or going solo can become a cultural Rorschach test. People – including many reviewers and interviewers – project their own views onto it, regardless of what you’ve written. The coverage was fascinating. Some prominent publications interpreted the book as an optimistic endorsement of single living, while others reported that it was dark and depressing. I got a lot of love from Bill Maher when I was on his talk show, but I also got a fair hearing from some Christian radio hosts who wanted to understand what was happening with all the singles in their community. I liked that diversity of perspective, because it helped to spark debates about the issue. But I most enjoyed the reviews and interviews that explored all sides of the social change, busting the harmful myths about singles (with A LOT of help from your work) while also acknowledging the fact that going solo can be challenging. After all, what way of living isn’t?
Bella: The stubborn stereotypes about solo dwellers include: (1) they are isolated and lonely, and (2) they have no obligations to anyone else. I think that one of the reasons those misperceptions persist is that the important people in the lives of singletons are invisible. We can’t find them in one predictable place – under the same roof.
Contrary to the stereotypes, some research shows that single people actually do more than their share of long-term care. That’s what Ursula Henz found when she asked more than 9,000 British adults, “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?” (From the Journal of Marriage and Family, 2006, 68, 411-429; also check out the links at the end of this post for previous discussions of the caring provided by people who are single.)
What have you learned from your research about the invisible or under-acknowledged caring provided by people who live alone?
Eric Klinenberg: The care work done by singles is unrecognized and unappreciated, as are their broader contributions to civic life. Conservative cultural critics condemn “selfish singles” for their purported narcissism, but I discovered that singles and singletons are actually more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors than people who are married, and – surprisingly – that they are more likely to volunteer in civic organizations. This is especially true for women, whose time and energy for public engagement diminishes when they get married and have children, but it’s true for men as well. Then there is the vast new world of middle-aged and older singles who are forming communities, networks, and in some cases alternative family structures to provide mutual support. They are participating in a genuine social revolution. After 200,000 years of group living, contemporary singletons are redefining the terms of collective life.
Bella: Most people who live alone are single, but most single people do not live alone. Instead, they live with people such as friends, family, housemates, or romantic partners. How (if at all) does that distinction matter in telling the story of solo living?
Eric Klinenberg: It’s a crucial distinction. Today nearly half of American adults are single, and one-third of them, roughly 33 million people, live alone. That’s probably an under-estimate, though, since millions of singles who are technically living with children are in fact sharing custody and going solo much of the time.
The other important distinctions are between living alone, feeling lonely, and being isolated. They are three very different phenomena. I can’t count all the times interviewers and colleagues asked me what got me interested in loneliness or presumed that living alone meant being alone, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Bella: Where’s the love? For those who study marriage and conventional families, there is a whole marriage industrial complex. There are conferences, journals, textbooks, courses, massive funding opportunities, academic degrees, and powerful advocacy groups. Singles and solo-dwellers have become demographic forces, but there is no comparable academic or political infrastructure supporting them. Do you think that will change?
Eric Klinenberg: This is a newish research area, and in fact many scholars who have studied marriage are now looking at singles and singletons, too. In Going Solo I write about one important problem for singles advocates: most singles don’t identify as such, and many are eager to couple up. That makes political organizing for singles difficult, but it’s not impossible. Just look at how the political parties are chasing single voters! I expect to see the academic research and the public debate about family life continue opening towards singles; they are just too numerous and significant to ignore.
Bella: You are an academic sociologist who, in a way, has not stayed in his place. You are not just publishing in academic journals and talking to other sociologists at professional conferences. You have been all over the popular media and you have been in the most esteemed media, too (such as the New Yorker, here and here). Any push-back from your fellow sociologists, particularly those still ensconced in their academic boxes?
Eric Klinenberg: I’ve been doing this kind of writing and public speaking since Heat Wave came out in 2002, so I’m used to it. Of course there are some academics who discount the value of popular books or magazine articles, but times are changing. Economics is by far the most powerful social science discipline today, and the leading economists are routinely involved in public debates. Many other fields – sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology – are organizing serious campaigns to promote public engagement. The challenge is to maintain academic rigor and intellectual depth regardless of the venue, and to speak and write in a style that invites dialog rather than shutting it down. One thing I know about the topic of living alone is that my book is just the beginning of the debate. I definitely do not have the final word.
Bella: Many thanks, Eric, for taking the time to talk to “Living Single” readers, and for telling the true story of solo living. Readers, you can also follow Eric on twitter: @ericklinenberg.
Previous discussions of the caring single people provide to others:
Previous discussions of solo living and Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: