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Solitude’s Strange Allure

We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that loves comes with community.” — Dorothy Day

Our society has been beset by myriad epidemics. We’ve got an abortion epidemic, an obesity epidemic, an epidemic of drug abuse, of homelessness, of fatherlessness (see our New Oxford Note “Man-Child in the Promised Land,” Sept.), of rudeness, of licentiousness, of gun violence. In a word, we’ve got epidemics ad nauseam. But there’s a new one we must add to the list, one that has begun drawing increased attention. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the epidemic of loneliness.

Time magazine recently ranked the “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life” (Mar. 12). Coming in at top spot, a surprising numero uno, was “Living Alone.” Eric Klinenberg, author of the recently released Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, was marshaled to make sense of the ranking. “The extraordinary rise of solitary living,” he writes, “is the biggest social change that we’ve neglected to identify, let alone examine.” He asks us to consider that in 1950 four million Americans lived alone, accounting for nine percent of all U.S. households. Back then solitary living was “a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.” No more. In 2011, Klinenberg informs us, nearly thirty-three million Americans were living alone, accounting for twenty-eight percent of all U.S. households. In other words, the percentage of single-occupant households has more than tripled over the past sixty years.

Singles are now tied with childless couples as “the most prominent residential type” in the nation, outnumbering — and here’s where it gets interesting — the nuclear family, the multi-generational family, and even roommate or group homes. Those concerned with saving traditional marriage and restoring the family unit ought to pause to consider this previously unacknowledged aspect of our cultural dissolution. “Singledom” is no longer just a temporary bridge between one’s parents’ household and the founding of one’s own; for many postmodern Americans, it’s a chosen, permanent state of life.

According to Klinenberg, this trend really isn’t as bad as it sounds. He pooh-poohs fears that the “rise of soloists” signals “the movement in our country toward greater social isolation” or “the ultimate atomization of the modern world,” as competing theorists have argued in Bowling Alone and The Lonely American. There is little evidence, he claims, that the increase of individuals living alone correlates to greater loneliness. On the contrary, it has numerous blessed side effects. People who live alone, he writes, “often compensate by becoming more socially active than those who live with others.”

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