Back in the millennial year 2000, Harvard professor Robert Putnam published a book that caused a lot of brow-wrinkling among social commentators. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities documented how family deterioration and technological innovation had detached Americans from their social context. Not a good thing, according to the author, who foresaw increasing social dysfunction.
Last years’ census figures, which were recently released, show that the number of single-person households has ticked up to 27 percent of the population. Were Putnam’s fears justified? Not necessarily, says Erik Kleinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University. In Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin Books, 2012), he details how his examination of a “problem” actually uncovered an encouraging trend. The 300 “singletons” he surveyed had more friends (and time to cultivate them), were more environmentally friendly (since almost all of them lived in apartments rather than resource-gobbling houses), and were more socially conscious (volunteering more time than their married counterparts). They also seemed quite happy.
Why this should be “surprising” is a surprise to me. Decades after millions of Americans decided that their personal satisfaction trumped family and church commitments, why shouldn’t the growing number of single people claim to be satisfied with a lifestyle that granted them near-complete control over their finances and time? Especially if they are educated urban professionals with decent jobs. They’re living the new American dream.
Kleinenberg deplores the bias that remains against single people, while revealing biases of his own. Praising the high level of volunteerism among singles in his book, he writes, “Marriages are very greedy, especially with women’s time.” In an interview with the left-wing Mother Jones, he insists that Republicans are going to have an uphill battle in future elections unless they get behind the push for free contraceptives.
That leads to the elephant in the room, or rather lots and lots of little elephants. In the Mother Jones interview, and indeed in any discussion of the benefits of the single life, children are barely mentioned if at all. As if future generations of responsible, healthy adults will magically appear with no effort on the part of today’s adults to plan for and provide for them. Their social value of children, as children, is negligible. Yuppies who save trees by living in apartments—now, that’s a real social benefit.
But when these singles reach retirement age without a sufficient network of younger income-earners to catch them, they may wonder why they gave more thought to nurturing the earth and their pet political causes than nurturing the next generation.