The Null Device

The new normal: living alone

According to sociologist Eric Klinenberg, we are witnessing an unprecedented rise in people choosing to live alone; and while this has been happening over a century, it is now becoming a stable state for large numbers of people, rather than being a temporary state between childhood, youthful house-sharing and nuclear parenthood:
You’d think that the United States, with its cult of individualism, would be the world leader in living alone, but it’s not. Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, among others, come in ahead of us. That’s because they’re advanced welfare states that combine their own emphasis on the individual with extensive social safety nets.
In the absence of such safety nets, terrible things can happen, especially to those who grow old in isolation. Klinenberg, who is not yet 40, won a reputation as a leading figure in his field with his much-discussed first book, “Heat Wave: The Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago,’’ which analyzed the deaths of over 700 people in Chicago during a weeklong period in July of 1995. Most of them were senior citizens who died at home and alone. Klinenberg showed how they were victims not just of the weather but of a social order that left them without the support of family, community, or government.
Klinenberg also rejects the usual clichés about living alone being a symptom of alienation and social atomisation (i.e., "bowling alone") and a pathological state, raising the claim that people who live alone often have richer social lives than those in traditional nuclear family arrangements:
“One reason so many people live alone today is that they can do it while being extremely social,’’ Klinenberg told me in an email. “You needn’t live a traditional lifestyle to have a community. In fact, people who live alone are more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors than are married people.’’
Big changes in the structure of everyday life have converged to enable us to live alone: the greater freedom and economic power of women, the communications revolution, longer life spans. Klinenberg sees living alone as a choice, not a form of exile, and it’s a choice we value because it’s infused with principles that are important to us: individual freedom, personal control, self-realization.
In other words, living with other people is not so much as the ideal state, or the most psychologically beneficial, as the least-worst state in societies where individuals don't have the means of living richly social lives from autonomous bases; and, indeed, the continuous stream of compromises resulting from sharing quarters with others can confine one to the lower rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs. (Of course, some traditionalists would contend that lack of self-actualisation is just another word for character-building, and that the self-actualised (or self-actualising; it's not clear whether self-actualisation is a state one can ever actually reach) character is a woefully underbuilt one, but that's another discussion.) Or, in other words, what common sense tells us is the natural order of things is the system of compromises we have become familiar with, to the point of assuming that that's the way things are meant to be. (Aside: if human neurologies have evolved to form stable social orders, then it's likely that humans have a innate bias towards classifying long-standing circumstances as natural rules, if not divine commandments, and not questioning them.)

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