Friday, March 2, 2012

Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg - Review

In Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin Press, 2012, 273 pages) Eric Klinenberg explores the reasons for, lifestyle, and policy implications of a world-wide, mostly urban trend toward living alone rather than in family units. He calls people choosing or finding themselves within this condition “singletons” and emphasizes the extent to which becoming and remaining a singleton is frequently, especially among well-educated, successful, urban young people, a choice. As barriers against women achieving career success have fallen and social pressures to marry and reproduce become lessened, the trend has risen with remarkable speed. He quotes data saying that in 1950 22 percent of American adults were single (4) while today more than “50 percent of American adults are single and 31 million … live alone.” (5) This means that “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all American households.” (5) This huge, and under-studied, group is exceptionally diverse, representing the diversity of our country as a whole. Nevertheless, our media, mainstream churches and conservative traditions neither recognize these changes nor seek to reach out to these people in ways the fortify and dignify the lives they've chosen or find themselves in.

Klinenberg presents his points in a highly readable style emphasizing people's stories (collected in over 300 ethnographic interviews) while using data and statistics sparingly. Nary a chart of graph requires the reader's attention. In his introductory chapter, he argues that “freedom, flexibility, and personal choice” may have supplemented marriage and the family as “cherished modern values.” (13) He identifies the following factors as contributing to singleton life:

      1. The rising status of women.
      2. The communications revolution.
      3. Mass ubanization.
      4. Increasing lifespan, especially of women.

Klinenberg identifies a number of advantages to living alone. These include:
      1. Opportunities for greater sexual freedom and experimentation.
      2. Provision of time to mature, develop, and search for true romantic love.
      3. Freedom from difficult roommates.
      4. Promotion of increased choices in socializing.
      5. Time to focus on the self.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this list is exceptionally selfish and self-referential, not contributing to greater social, or even personal, well-being. It's also worth asking whether these advantages are good as either ends or means. The author urges his readers to remain open to the possibilities and problems of singleness in social, political, economic and personal terms to avoid too easily becoming opponents or advocates. He knows, right from the start, that his observations and many of his conclusions will generate strong resistance in some quarters, both personal and in the broader political world.

Eric Klinenberg

Eric Klinenbeerg is a professor of Sociology at New York University. His first book examined the Chicago heat wave which killed approximately 775 people in 1995. He's also written about media culture. He writes both scholarly and popular material. In Going Solo at least one of his specialties emerges as something of a bias, as he concentrates on singleness being most prevalent in urban areas, although he does explore policy issues for making suburbia more singleton friendly in his concluding chapter. He also doesn't spend significant time looking at the singleton phenomenon in rural America, where a much more conservative view toward traditional family life seems to continue to hold sway. Nevertheless, concerns for the rural elderly in regions where the support structure is dissolving are real and the problem is increasing.

These caveats aside, Klinenberg focuses more on a group of smart, focused, successful women from a variety of age groups who are forthcoming about their situations and choices. The profiles of women in the book are much more interesting and nuanced than those of men, perhaps because they are more articulate than the men he encounters. The solo men tend to be more likely to be damaged by alcohol, drugs, or mental illness than the women, and are generally less able to communicate about themselves and their feelings. pretty much like the differences between men and women generally. Nevertheless, the plight of men seems to be more dire and their own sense of available options fewer. Unlike the women, they seldom relish being single. Rather, singleness seems to be a situation into which they've been forced by circumstances. They have difficulty communicating with family members and often see no viable alternative to their situations.

Women, on the other hand, seem to choose living alone for a variety of reasons and some of the women Klinenberg interviews are people who have undertaken organized efforts to effect the range of choices and options available to single women. They often participate in a rich community of family, friends, and lovers while choosing to live alone. Often, living alone functions as way to have a reliable refuge where the demands of work and family can be left outside in order for the women to recharge their batteries and prepare themselves for the next busy day. Since working conditions today are so all-consuming and competitive, they discourage the hard work required to maintain serious, committed relationships. Lifetime employment no longer exists, forcing people to take care of their careers first. Since women are often expected to build a career and serve as prime home-maker simultaneously, it often works out that eliminating or postponing marriage and family works out best for women seeking advancement in business or the professions. It has also become easier for women to purchase housing, and perhaps 30% of first-time home buyers are women. One wonders whether, during the recent economic downturn, fewer single women have been foreclosed than families.

The situation, plight, of senior singletons is often quite different from that of young professionals, and Klinenberg treats them differently. A substantial majority of elderly singles are women, mostly widows, who choose not to live with family or institutional settings for reasons, often excellent, of their own. Leading the list are concerns about autonomy, independence, and freedom as well as justifiable fear of the conditions found in affordable institutions like nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and the like. Klinenberg spends significant time examining the conditions in these institutions and exploring necessary policy alternatives given the rapid expansion of this population. Single Room Occupancy hotels, a refuge for many of the damaged, especially men, receive much of Klinenberg's well-deserved attention as the refuges for drugs, alcohol, and sexual predation they can become.

While life for aging singletons may be difficult, there are plenty of models in operation that point the way toward useful solutions. Several programs in major urban areas, particularly New York are examined, and there's a lengthy section on single life in Sweden where a majority of adults live alone, and parents often give their children a single apartment when they become ready to leave their childhood homes. He also devotes significant space to ways living for our rapidly expanding single population can be addressed through legislation.
Neither a self-help book nor a memoir, Going Solo is a fine example of a research-based, general interest book examining a current social issue. Eric Klinenberg uses a mass of research, extensive references, as well as his own team's interviews and analyses to paint a portrait of a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon growing out of urbanization and the increasing abilities of individuals to be self-reliant in contemporary society. Readers seeking to find solutions for their own circumstances will find them easily, but they must do part of the work themselves. This very readable, enjoyable volume depicts many of the opportunities and problems while supplying portraits of many of the alternatives available and suggestions for necessary policy decisions.
Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone is published by The Penguin Group (2012). It is 273 pages long and retails for 27.95. I received my copy from the publisher through TlC Book Tours for purposes of review. 

 Other Stops on the Going Solo Book Tour

Tuesday, January 31st: The Feminist Texican
Wednesday, February 1st: Living Single
Thursday, February 2nd: Rachel’s Musings
Friday, February 3rd: Book Club Classics!
Monday, February 6th: The Spinsterlicious Life
Wednesday, February 8th: Carol Scibelli
Thursday, February 9th: Sixty and Single in Seattle
Monday, February 20th: Lesa’s Book Critiques
Tuesday, February 21st: Singularly Happy
Thursday, February 23rd: It’s All About Balance
Monday, February 27th: Womens Talk
Tuesday, February 28th: Onely: Single and Happy
Thursday, March 1st: Quirkyalone