Why Do So Many Americans Live Alone?

The New Yorker

When I was looking into the work of Jean-François Martin, I happened upon an article he illustrated for The New Yorker, entitled "The Disconnect: Why are so many Americans single?" With all due respect to author Nathan Heller, I really think the title should have been, "Why do so many Americans live alone?", as the article contains very little talk of romance and plenty of discussion of the civic, social, and practical aspects of living alone.

The Disconnect looks into the many influences that have led to so many adults living alone, and is worth a read, so I'll just address a few of its points here. According to Mr. Heller's research, "nearly a third of all households have just one resident". Did you know that? I had no idea! It is, apparently, a trend very much on the rise, one that has some parties concerned. Unfairly, I think, for many reasons, one of which is that I adamantly believe that living alone- even just for a year- makes you infinitely better equipped to live with others. Someday, if you wish.

Perhaps part of the appeal of living alone is the spontaneity, both social & financial. "Those who live by themselves are light on their feet (they're able to move as the work demands) and flexible with their time (they have no meals to come home for). They tend to be financially resilient, too, since no one else is relying on their income." The dark side of this, of course, is that there's no one else's income to rely on. My rent is over half my income, so if I get sick or have shifts cut, there's no one to pick up the slack. But as Heller points out, if I want to work 12 days in a row or pick up double shifts, I'm not disappointing anyone by being gone too much.

When it comes to civic concerns, however, I feel I must disagree with the article. Heller writes, "And, rather than consigning individuals to suffer in their solitude, aloneness may come at a cost to the community. The single life is inherently self-interested: it calls for vigilance on matters of self-preservation both large (financial autonomy) and small (dish detergent), and, in many cases, it frees the solitary from the sorts of daily interaction that help craft a sense of shared responsibility." In my very casual observation, people who live with others- whether roommates, family, or a partner- are often less likely to leave the house. There's always someone there! There's nearly always someone to talk to, someone to interact quietly with, some activity that can be taken up together. For those of us who live alone, getting a nice dose of human interaction requires leaving the house. Whether that means stopping by local shops, attending public forums, or taking knife skills classes, we have to put ourselves out there. I'm in no way saying we're cooler than people who live together- rather, I think it's incredibly unfair to blame people who live alone for declining PTA participation. He does later go on to write, "The truth is that lonely people at home typically contact friends, loiter in bookstores, work in cafés, take on roommates, open OKCupid profiles, or dance Tecktonik at a rave.", so I'm back on board.

What this article really made me think about is that for every person living alone who pines for a family-filled home, there's someone who wishes they could live alone. Of all my friends here in San Francisco, I am the only one who lives alone. I rented a rent-controlled apartment with someone 7 years ago, and am (barely) able to afford it on my own. In those intervening years, rents have skyrocketed, and humble apartments like mine go for double my current rent. Many of my friends- all educated, employed, and in their 30s- wish they could afford to live without roommates, but it's simply impossible here and in many other expensive cities. Perhaps if they were able to afford their ideal living situation, they would- like Kimberly profiled in the article- be even more likely to throw themselves into their communities.

I know this has been a bit rambling (and believe me, the New Yorker article was even farther-reaching, with tragically at-risk elderly people, techno-skepticism, moments of disaster, and "the taint of loserdom" all thrown in), but what do you think? Does it hurt or help society that so many adults live alone- or are the two completely unrelated? If you've lived alone, how has it affected your relationship to the greater world?

(Image: Julie's Mailbox Coffee Table)

64 Comments