Is Living Alone the New Shacking Up?

Living alone. Once, perhaps, it was a designation that you were an old maid, destined to someday die alone and be devoured by your cat, if you were lucky. But what if that single life could be forever sustained?

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Living alone. Once, perhaps, it was a designation that you were an old maid, destined to someday die alone and be devoured by your cat, if you were lucky. But what if that single life could be forever sustained? The stereotypes of the spinster cat lady or the hopeless, hapless bachelor, subsisting on TV dinners and bad Chinese takeout, comforting himself with the warmth of the occasional lady friend, or the television-cum-laptop, are only based on the occasional extreme: Certainly, in years prior to now, singles have existed happily and successfully on their own. Some more so than the coupled among us.

Moving out of your parents' house or a college dorm shared with assigned roommates and into an apartment with friends is one rite of passage into adulthood. The next, chronologically speaking, would be finding the funds and the wherewithal to live by yourself -- an ultimate luxury, if you can manage it, in these crowded spaces. And after that, at least historically, would come pairing up again, moving in with a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, partner...and eventually, should you see fit, adding new members to your living space.

Thus, you chart the course from child to adulthood with those single and alone years a bookmark of freedom, a time you had to take care of you and only you, a time you could eat Doritos on the couch all night and perhaps even fall asleep with them next to you, only wash the dishes when you disgusted yourself, stay out all night and never be nagged about it the next day. A time of ultimate, temporary freedom, to be looked back upon with a sense of having sowed wild oats, or at the very least, a resigned but satisfied "that was then -- this is now."

However, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU and the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, argues that singledom is not just a phase anymore. He writes in a recent piece in the New York Times that not only are more people living alone than ever, living alone actually means you're more social. Living alone is also a mark of financial success.

In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.        

Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.

Five million people in the U.S. aged 18 and 34 live alone. Internationally, the numbers of those living alone are even higher. And far from being isolated old maids and incompetent bachelors, single people seek outside companionship more, going out to dinner, hanging out with friends, taking classes, using their freedom from family obligations as they see fit. And then going home when they see fit to get the peace and quiet and rest they want. When they want. As they want.

OK, but does this mean single people are spoiled and self-interested, and will never be able to have families? That, the longer you're single, as the story goes, the more set in your ways you will be, and the harder it will ever be for you to cohabitate with someone else? More practically: Will there even be enough apartments in cities to sustain all these adamant singles?

Further, as the Daily Beast asks -- citing activists who say that unmarried people have to pay more for health and car insurance, don't get the same tax breaks, and can face difficulties buying homes and renting apartments -- are single people actually discriminated against? Perhaps. But if, as Klinenberg concludes, "All signs suggest that living alone will become even more common in the future, at every stage of adulthood and in every place where people can afford a place of their own," discrimination may eventually sway in a different direction.

Contrary to the title of Klinenberg's book, the appeal of living alone, a situation in which you can do what you want, when you want, is not surprising at all. This is a feeling not lost on an engaged friend of ours, who has been considering her 300-square-foot studio and pondering (rhetorically) the question of whether married people really need to live in the same apartment at all.

But that friend is the exception, because by and large, it seems that living alone is a benefit of -- and goes hand in hand with -- not getting married. And as fewer people decide they want to get hitched, you have to wonder if we're destined to become a nation, at least in urban centers, of single people living alone.

A sentiment probably shared with those who decide not to marry is what Klinenberg heard from folks who, after divorces or breakups chose to go it alone: There's "nothing worse than living with the wrong person." All of this indicates that the state of "living with the right person" (whether yourself or someone else, married or not) is being re-conceived as we speak, and more than any time previously, it's up to individuals to decide.

Singles: Talk about it over happy hour?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.