There has been a recent spate of books and articles about Oh! The Demographic Shifts! Later marriage and childbearing for some groups, earlier for others. Boomerang children. These topics have been getting lots of traction.
So has this book, Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, about the “extraordinary rise” of people living alone. Roughly 1 out of 7 in our country live alone, mostly in metro areas like DC, NYC, and San Francisco. Over twice as many people are single as there were in the 50s. Interesting!
Now, it is interesting that singleton households outnumber nuclear families these days. And that it’s such a stark shift from the 1950s. And Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of it and other studies of the phenomenon are fascinating.
But isn’t this a story about class? Nathan Heller, why couldn’t you frame it that way?
I have never been able to afford to live alone. I don’t know many people who have. I’m “creative class”: I have a Ph.D., I’ve made my living largely in bookishy jobs (journalism, market research, and academia). I have been a cultural elite for a long time.
But living alone in NYC? Seriously? Who are these people? I don’t know them. I’ve seen them on TV. But even the friends in Girls–HBO’s super-hyped new show about young bourgeoisie women who literally navel-gaze–have roommates.
So if there’s an extraordinary rise in singleton living story, isn’t it in fact a changing-nature-of-upper-class-life story? I actually want to read THAT story.
Heller summarizes Klineburg’s findings: “Single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values,” including women’s lib, urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity. But isn’t that true for a specific group of people? The people able to benefit most from these changes?
I also want to read a story briefly glossed in the article, about the changes in social structures wrought by (or alongside) the dominance of online social networks–as long as class is central to the discussion. For example, “Given our digital habits, the question isn’t whether we should use technology to ease our loneliness. It’s how.” But might this vary by level of digital technology saturation in a social group?
The closest Nathan Heller gets to the economic realities of the rise in solo households is his discussion of the very real dangers posed to the elderly who live alone. In particular, he mentions the coming cohort of boomer seniors whose commitment to personal liberation is markedly different from previous generations. He rightly states that the ethics of senior care will change when most seniors see “aloneness as a choice, an identity, an exercise of freedom.”
But mostly the article focuses on lonely Manhattanites and tries to universalize their story.
One of my fantasies about public discourse is that people will more routinely separate the economic from the cultural elite in their analysis. I usually defend certain publications (cough cough newyorktimes) from accusations of representing a mythical “liberal elite” standpoint. But in this case, I have to say, New Yorker, it don’t matter if you profile Taylor Swift. You got a little too Manhattan on this one. It kept you from reporting a more relevant, balanced story.