Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Individuals and Communities

I recently read David Brooks's New York Times Article "The Talent Society," which led me to read NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg's book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.  Brooks's article discusses how Americans are favoring the maximization of talent over locking themselves into stable, committed situations (marriage; settling down in a community).  In Going Solo, Klinenberg describes the worldwide rise of people living without family or roommates.  Factors that may be causing this include higher amounts of wealth, mass urbanization, and decreased social stigma.

At first glance, this phenomenon seems supremely sad: people are becoming self-reliant not just in their friendships (see this 2010 blog post), but also in their living situations.  Klinenberg begins the book by recounting how he got into the business of writing about living alone: during his coverage of the Chicago heat wave, he discovered that many of those who died had been living alone, with no one to look out for them.  People are living alone in part because of the disintegration of the institution of marriage, because of how long people often outlives their spouses, and because of the increased geographic mobility of family members.  Among the people Klinenberg profiles are those who live in complete isolation and people who die alone.  End-of-life is often difficult for those who live far from family members: workplace policy often does not allow time off to care for friends.

Fortunately, Klinenberg covers the many positive aspects of this shift towards living alone.  People are motivated to live alone because high income levels and mass urbanization support the fabulous lifestyles of urban singles.  People are escaping negative living situations: Klinenberg profiles many divorced people who report that living alone can be much less lonely than living with someone with whom they do not get along.  In a world with constant external stimulation, living alone allows people to take the time and space they need to relax and rejuvenate.  As people are spending more time outside of nuclear family structures, they are turning to the greater (transient) community for their social needs.

Klinenberg reveals that the community has become important in the rise of the cult of the individual.  People are not necessarily more alone: urban singles often have more active social lives than those who live with others.  In addition, collective housing is starting to become more popular outside of the United States.  Klinenberg describes a collective housing unit for singles in Finland where people have the option to, but are not obligated to, participate in activities with their housing community.  Instead of turning to nuclear families for support, people are becoming increasingly reliant on a larger and more transient group.

In the upcoming decades, it will be important to structure our society to allow people to happily live alone together.  This will involve examining housing structures, social policy, and expectations about how social needs are to be met.  It seems that as long as we make sure groups such as the anti-social and aging are not left behind, our society can continue to move from one based around the nuclear family to one based on pursuing individual goals in the context of transient but supportive communities.