Feb 6 2012
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Isolation in America: Does Living Alone Mean Being Alone?

Eric Klinenberg, PhD, is a professor of sociology at New York University and the recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Investigator Award in Health Policy Research. He is the author of “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” which examines a fast-growing trend of people in the United States living alone.

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Human Capital Blog: Why did you decide to look at this topic?

Eric Klinenberg: The first book I wrote was about a catastrophic heat wave in Chicago that killed more than 700 people in 1995. One of the most powerful and disturbing features of the event was that hundreds of people died alone and were discovered hours, or in some cases days, after they perished. I became aware of how pervasive aging alone had become and grew very concerned about the health problems of social isolation. Through the RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, I was able to do more work on the topic. Their support was completely essential.

When I started doing research on the bigger issue of living alone, I realized that what I had studied in Chicago was its bleakest aspect. Social isolation is a big problem, and one that deserves far more attention and resources than we give it today. But I also realized that there’s much more to living alone than being isolated. Living alone and being alone are very different things. And Going Solo calls for a more sharp distinction between them.

HCB: You conducted interviews with hundreds of people across the country who live alone. Tell us about the trends you identified in the book.

Klinenberg: When I looked more closely at the issue I learned that living alone had become incredibly common and that people do it wherever and whenever they can afford to. Living alone is expensive—in some ways, it’s a luxury, although we don’t normally think of it that way—so it’s much more common among middle class and affluent people than others.

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Today living alone is common in nearly all of the most developed and affluent societies in the world. I had originally thought it was an American phenomenon but, in fact, it’s a global one.

I believe that the rise of living alone is the biggest demographic change since the baby boom. In all of human history no society has ever sustained large numbers of people living alone for long periods of time. That began to change in the 1950s and 60s. So today we find ourselves in an unprecedented social experiment, and my book is the first comprehensive report on this social change.

HCB: Is there a typical “singleton”—a person living alone?

Klinenberg: We found four main groups of singletons from this study. First, there are young people under 35 who have delayed marriage and achieved some professional success. For them, living alone has become a key way to become an adult. It gives them freedom and control of personal time and space that allows them to be self-reflective and flexible. A lot of young people live alone because they’re concerned about uncertainties in the world and they want to get as much security for themselves as they can.

Another group is adults age 35 to 65. Generally most of them have been married and are now divorced or separated. They’re very interesting because often they say that they never felt lonelier than they did when they were living in the wrong relationship. Paradoxically, living alone became a way for them to achieve good health and security, because it allowed them to reassert control over their lives, and to carve out the time and space they needed to reconnect with others. They found it to be a less stressful condition.

What’s so interesting is that these groups have managed to make living alone a very social experience. One of the big surprises we found is that people who live alone are more social than people who are married. They spend more time with friends and neighbors and this gives them alternate kinds of personal support. There are record numbers of people living alone, and they are concentrated in cities and communities where there are lots of other people who are interested in making connections.

HCB: And what about the other two groups? Do they fall into the same category?

Klinenberg: The other groups have more challenges. One is very poor and often sick men who live in single room occupancy dwellings. For them living alone is a defensive move. They do it to protect themselves and often to avoid close contact with people or places that might get them in trouble. These men tend to have more health problems to begin with and they’re at risk of growing more isolated through their self-defense. They are at-risk for all kinds of health problems, including death from so-called natural disasters like heat waves. We need to be doing much more to integrate them with good health care and social services.

The final group is people who are aging alone, and what was interesting and surprising to me is that people who age alone also tend to be quite social. They, too, spend more time with friends and neighbors than older people who are married, and they express a clear preference for living alone rather than moving in with their children or with friends. But if they get sick or frail they can become dangerously isolated. And unfortunately during the recession, cities and states across the country have cut essential services like home health care and meals on wheels that provide a lifeline for people who age alone. That’s a serious policy problem, and one that RWJ has worked hard to redress.

HCB: Do you plan to continue your research on this topic?

Klinenberg: I’ve been studying the rise of living alone for about a decade, and before that I was writing about dying alone in Chicago. In the abstract, I’d say that I’m ready for a new topic. But if my history says anything, it’s that I’ll have a hard time leaving this topic alone.

Tags: Health & Health Care Policy, Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, Mental and Emotional Well-Being, National, Publications, Research & Analysis, Voices from the Field