Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, discusses how an outmoded image of singletons, such as the rugged individualist shown on screen, is being replaced by an image of active, connected singles who contribute to community vitality. (Photo credit: © Scavone Photography)

The rise in living alone is “the biggest modern social change that we’ve yet to name or identify,” said Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University. He examined the effect this change is having on cities and suburbs in a keynote presentation at a ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing forum on June 21 in Washington, D.C.

Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (The Penguin Press, 2012), uses the term “singleton” to differentiate those who live alone from unmarried “singles,” many of whom live in households with family members or others.

He argued that this trend does not mean what many people assume. Our old perceptions about those who live alone—
that they are sick, neurotic, immoral, and/or lonely—are simply wrong, he said. In fact, he noted, people who live alone are more likely than married people to take advantage of urban amenities, to go out at night, to attend public events and engage in other activities that “animate the streets.”

They also are more likely to volunteer with civic organizations. “These are not selfish, self-involved, narcissistic people who are not participating in collective life. We have to change our image of who singletons are. Clearly they are a force in cities today.”

Klinenberg presented the intriguing statistics that 27.6 percent of all U.S. households consist of people living alone (compared with fewer than 10 percent in 1950), and that this is predominantly an urban phenomenon (whereas until the 1950s it was a mostly rural one). In Washington, D.C., and Manhattan, for example, nearly half of all households are single-person ones (48 and 46 percent, respectively). “These are staggering numbers, and they say a lot about how we live today,” he added.

Who are these singletons, what types of housing choices are they making, and what will these choices mean for the housing industry? During the course of his research, Klinenberg came to view the phenomenon of living alone as a social experiment rather than a social problem. “Why do the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another?” he asked. The answer, he proposed, is a reflection of values that many view as inherently American: freedom, personal control, and self realization—as well as (and not necessarily paradoxically) both solitude and connection with others.

The rising economic status of women, widespread prosperity, and the “rise of the welfare state” also have driven up rates of living alone. (Many European nations, including Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France, have even higher percentages of singletons than the United States.) Yet, he noted, a catastrophic economic situation or the demise of social security and other support systems could dramatically shift the trend.

Klinenberg cited four primary factors that are playing roles in this trend and that have broad implications for the development industry:

  • Women’s Economic Independence
    Single women today represent about 20 percent of all home buyers; they are twice as likely to buy a home as single men.
  • The Communications Revolution
    Being home alone today means something very different than it did in the past. “We are creating new kinds of sociability; social media are connecting people in new ways,” he suggested, arguing that the best evidence to date implies that the heaviest users of social media also are “the heaviest users of face time”; they are more likely to spend time with others.
  • The Rise of Cities—and of Neighborhoods within Cities
    As many as 70 percent of the households in some urban neighborhoods consist of a single person. Klinenberg argued that such neighborhoods benefit the entire city by offering the cafés, restaurants, bars, active sidewalks, and other amenities that result in “a booming public life.” They are the “places where we all like to go,” he said.
  • The Longevity Revolution
    More people also are aging alone than ever before. This has clear implications for continuum-of-care retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, places where people can have their own “home” and be close to companions, service providers, and amenities.

“Living alone is a hugely significant social change that we misunderstand at our peril,” Klinenberg said, noting that the cities and suburbs that recognize and accept this trend will be more successful than those that do not.

What types of housing attract singletons? Klinenberg described a residential complex in Stockholm, Sweden, (which he called “the world capital of living alone”) for people 45 and older. The complex looks a lot like many high-end, amenity-rich buildings in New York City, featuring relatively small residential units but a multitude of amenities, including a large health club, a coffee bar, party rooms, public lounge spaces, and outdoor terraces. It fosters community by requiring all residents to commit to helping with preparation of a shared meal several times a week.

Projects like this, he proposed, could prove attractive to Americans who (sometimes to their surprise) find themselves aging alone—but who want to remain connected with others.

How this trend will play out in housing for younger age groups, and in inner-ring suburbs that could become more popular among young singleton professionals depends in part on whether municipalities can resolve zoning issues and overcome opposition from existing residents. Some zoning requirements, along with community opposition, can make it difficult or impossible to build smaller-scale residential units and commercial amenities that appeal to people who live alone.

“I think that’s a real issue,” said Klinenberg. “There are a lot of ideas about how to build smaller residential units that connect people to a bigger world, and I hope we can have some good conversations about that.”

Read more about the June 2012 ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing forum: Planning for a generation that thinks outside of the house.