Me, five years ago, Times Square: I’m spending the night on the sidewalk, under a massive Mamma Mia! billboard. It’s raining, I’m completely soaked, and I’m freezing my butt off in the -2° wind chill. The next 24 hours are a very cold blur, but a few things are certain: I get one of the coveted wristbands to meet System of a Down at the Virgin megastore, then I jump in a car with complete strangers to go stand in line for the actual concert at Webster Hall. Since I’m solo, I don’t have to worry about getting split up from my people, and I’m able to brave my way through the mosh pit to be near the stage. When it’s all over, I exchange numbers with the cute guy I met, take the train back home to Yonkers, walk home in the dark, and promptly fall into bed. I answer to no one, and it’s exhilarating.
Me, two days after that: It’s Thanksgiving and I’m all alone. I’m horribly ill, and I’m positive that no one will find me until my rotting corpse stinks up the place, a thought that makes me cry in self-pity. I’m pretty sure that my ribs were bruised in the mosh pit because I can’t take more than shallow breaths without feeling stabbing chest pain. I’m paying dearly for being one of those people who does questionable shit like stand in sub-zero temperatures just to get an album signed, and I’m mad at myself. The scene from Bridget Jones’s Diary, where she dies and is eaten by dogs, keeps floating through my delirious mind.
Such is the life of a (sometimes irresponsible) single. Granted, I knew the worst-case scenario was that my roommate would come home in a few days and find me battling pneumonia: I was single, not a singleton, a single person who lives alone. But now that I’ve entered my 30s and can see myself being quite content as a singleton for the rest of my life (unless I meet someone who’d be willing to live á la Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter), I know that the melodramatic scenarios that Bridget Jones and I have envisioned aren’t completely farfetched. After all, single people dying in their homes–the hundreds of isolated people who died in Chicago’s 1995 head wave, to be exact–served as the impetus for Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Worrisome as some of the topics in this book may be, Klinenberg presents eye-opening sociological observations about the lives of singletons.
We’re living in a time when people are single in unprecedented numbers. The growing divorce rate, the rising status of women in the workplace, and the encouragement of individualism have all contributed to the growing number of single people. Klinenberg argues that up until recent decades, the emphasis was always on family and community. While those things are still undoubtedly important, people’s lifestyles have markedly changed. Even though people hardly ever bat an eye at a single person anymore, society has yet to catch up with the times in ways that can be–and have been–detrimental to vulnerable populations of singletons, particularly the sick and the aging.
The book also combats stereotypes that people have of singletons: depressed, lonely, and antisocial. While there are indeed plenty of depressed, lonely, and/or antisocial singletons out there, there are also numerous singletons–be they 25 years old or 80 years old–who causally date and are active in their communities; they wouldn’t trade their freedom for anything. There were a lot of entertaining interviews with older people, many of them widows or divorcées, who were quite blunt about their desire to never get tied down again.
My only wish is that the book had been a little more even handed race- and class-wise. Some of this is couldn’t be helped; after all, the people who can actually afford to live completely on their own are usually in middle class. And Klinenberg does talk about on the hardships that single people of color experience:
Elderly Latinos and African Americans who live alone are much more likely to be poor than their white or Asian counterparts…They’re also less likely to get appropriate care and treatment for mental illness, and more likely to feel that the place they live is unsafe.
But for every statistic on people of color, there was an interviewee described as a pretty, blue-eyed blonde. It just felt like the voices of minorities could have featured a little more in the interviews.
Still, even as a single person who has given several of these topics some serious thought, I found the book and its statistics illuminating. Klinenberg raises fascinating points about the rise of the single population, but his most compelling arguments are about its trajectory: the world has changed, and in terms of cost and ethics, society simply can’t afford to keep ignoring this growing community.
Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone will be released on February 6, 2012 by The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Group. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.