Guest lecturer, Eric Klinenberg outlines pros, cons of living alone

Sun, 2012/03/11
Ryan Hynes
The College of Science and Letters recently hosted a guest lecture from New York University Professor of Sociology and Chicago native Eric Klinenberg.


The lecture, “Going Solo”, focused on the staggering rise of people living in alone. Klinenberg was first turned on to this idea while writing another book, Heat Wave, in which he profiled the 1995 Chicago heat wave that claimed the lives of roughly 750 people. While conducting his research, he noticed that an overwhelming majority of the victims lived alone, and were not found until several days after their deaths. Klinenberg never explored the reasons why so many people were living alone when writing Heat Wave. Now, a decade later, he focuses upon that exact issue.


Klinenberg claims that “living alone is the biggest social change that we’ve yet to identify”, and makes a convincing argument in support. Data from the late 1950s and early 1960s shows that living alone was indeed rare, with fewer than ten percent of the population living by themselves. Societal perceptions of single living were also much different 50 years ago. Most people felt that those who lived alone were immoral, criminal, or some kind of social deviant. Current social trends sharply contrast past sentiments. Now, 28% of all households are single, and the social stigma associated with it is non-existent.


Klinenberg also noted that living alone is a purely urban phenomenon. He limited his research to major metropolitan areas across the US and Europe, and found that there is a strong correlation between living in an urban area and living alone. Surprisingly, Chicago is relatively low on the list of US cities, with only 30% of residents living alone. Washington D.C. was the highest, with 48% of all residents living by themselves. The trend is global as well, and several European countries rank higher than the US in percentage of population living alone.


From this, came another interesting discovery. Single living is positively correlated with wealth. In other words, living by yourself is a luxury. It is more expensive to live alone than with another person, yet still people are willing to pay for the privilege. Klinenberg postulated that living alone presents an opportunity for a person to truly know themselves, or achieve the Maslowian goal of self-actualization. Another conclusion Klinenberg drew from his research, was that people are not any less social than they were in previous generations, but that because technology has made it easier to socialize with one another, it facilitates single living. One striking comment was “that we are so interdependent; it enables us to be independent”.


Klinenerg explores in depth this new phenomenon, as well as some of the finer points of it, such as single living across age groups, in his book “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.”  Klinenberg’s takeaway was that living alone is not something negative that should be condemned, but rather, it is the byproduct of the evolving mores and operations of a modern society, and should be embraced as such.


If you missed Klinenberg’s lecture, the College of Science and Letters is sponsoring several guest lecturers, the next of whom will be Gordon Wood. Wood is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and Professor Emeritus at Brown University. Wood will giving the inaugural lecture for the new Benjamin Franklin Project at IIT this Thursday, March 15.