I like to listen to audiobooks during my lunch break, particularly non-fiction audiobooks on topics of interest to me. This month, so far, I have listened to Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions and Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. I enjoyed both, but neither are exactly related to topics of interest to me; though, I agree with Bill that climate change should be of interest to all of us.
While browsing Libby’s library for something a bit more social science-like, a colourful audiobook cover caught my eye (different from the cover photo for this post). It showed a winding dirt road running up a grassy hill to a lonely white house between three tear drop-shaped trees. My first thought when I saw the cover was, where can I find a house like that that I can afford?
The audiobook, titled Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, was described as an examination of the increase in people living alone in the Unites States. A topic that certainly interested me. After all, I could be described as one day going solo myself and, thus, relate personally to the topic (as a Canadian). Further, the author, Eric Klinenberg, is a professor of social science at New York University, which says a lot about the book’s content. When I know the author has both formal education and experience on the topic, I can be confidant of the content’s validity. That isn’t always the case, of course, but it often is.
I didn’t read much of the synopsis before downloading the audiobook because the first few lines captured my interest enough that I opted to jump in head first. That equated to a bit of a surprise at how scholarly the content was. That isn’t to say it was a bad surprise, it just caught me off guard. Between the colourful and cartoony audiobook cover and the author’s choice to forgo any prefix (Dr.) or suffix (PhD.), I incorrectly assumed that the content would be a bit more for the public. But on a scale of academic journal article to YA novel, Going Solo sits much closer to the journal article.
The book (or, in this case, audiobook) dives deep into the history and rise of solo living in major metropolitan US cities since about the 1980s. The content is loosely organized into three demographic categories:
- The experiences of solo living as a young person.
- The experiences of solo living as a middle-aged person.
- The experiences of solo living as an old person.
It includes responses from solo dwellers that Eric interviewed to share their unique experiences, and those responses are followed by Eric’s reflections or interpretations. Essentially, the book is the result of one big qualitative investigation. Thus, if the topic is of interest to you, and you don’t mind a somewhat scholarly style of writing, this might be a book you’d want to check out. I certainly enjoyed it.
What I found interesting
Below are some aspects of the book I found interesting. If you are going to read or listen to the book yourself, you might want to stop reading here. Though, I’m uncertain if the following would necessarily be considered spoilers. Are spoilers even a thing with non-fiction?
Causes of solo living
Eric discusses the causes for the rise of solo living, and one of those is the change in children’s living space. Before 1980, it was uncommon for children to have their own private bedroom. After 1980, whether due to increasing house size or decreasing family size (or both), it became more common for children to have their own private bedroom. Eric suggests that this trend might be associated with the rise in solo living because, from an early age, children learn how to live alone.
I find the above cause intriguing because I am an only child who had his own private bedroom while growing up, and I have no concerns about living alone. In fact, I revere my alone time. However, I’m uncertain if that is associated with having my own private bedroom or just being an only child. After all, the negative behavioural traits of children without siblings (if they are to be believed) seem to align with a desire to live alone. I’d be interested to know how many only children are living alone as adults.
Eric also discusses the association between living alone and rates of divorce. He writes that one in five marriages end in divorce (in Canada, today, it is closer to two in five), and only around half of those divorcees get married again. What I enjoyed was the story that Eric included of a woman who divorced her male partner and has since been living alone. She says she enjoys living alone because she no longer has to concern herself with a husband who feigns ignorance of domestic skills to avoid housework. I laughed while listening to this because I enjoy housework, which makes me wonder if growing up or living alone contributes to that behaviour.
Consequences of solo living
You can’t write a book about the rise of living alone without exploring the consequences of it—the obvious one is loneliness. Eric writes that people who live alone tend to be more lonely, but the cause isn’t clear. He wonders whether solo dwellers are lonely because they are living alone, or if they are living alone because they are lonely. On the surface, it seems like a bit of a ridiculous question. However, consider the fact that people who do not live alone are also lonely at times. Loneliness is, as Eric writes, part of the human condition, regardless of living situation.
The focus of Going Solo is on people who live alone in big cities. Those types of urban spaces typically offer many opportunities to socialize, which reduce feelings of loneliness. Personally, I’m not a fan of big-city living. Therefore, I’m curious whether people who live alone in a small town would be more likely to feel alone, and, assuming they are, what can be done to combat it?
Designing cities for solo living
Eric only briefly talked about how the design of big cities can have an impact on the lifestyle and health of people living alone, but it is a topic of particular interest to me. Because people who live alone live differently than the typical nuclear family, cities need to be designed differently to accommodate this changing behaviour—such as more green and social spaces.
Where I am located, in Southern Ontario, the average price to own a condo in a big city like Toronto is over $800K, a semi-detached home is over $1.3M, and a detached home is over $1.7M. Who can afford to live in the city? In addition, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a renewed interest in small-town living. I think there needs to be a Going Solo 2: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone in a Small Town because more solo dwellers are going to find themselves out there, myself included, and small towns are not designed for them. What sort of impact will this have on the lifestyles and health of people who live alone?