Earlier this year, divorcee Dominique Browning published an essay in the New York Times positing a gender gap in the talent for living alone. She and her single female neighbors, she wrote, relish the freedom to eat at odd hours and monopolize the bed, while men are indifferent to these perks. Nesting at home, she went on to assert, women feel safe. “Men,” though, “are hard-wired to feel danger all the time … Being alone feels dangerous to a man.”
These generalizations incensed commenters and bloggers, one of whom offered this summary: “Binary gender norms are alive and thriving, except the roles have reversed (sort of).” But according to sociological research, Browning wasn’t entirely off the mark. On average, women may be better suited to solitary habitation than men, at least past a certain age. It’s not, however, because men don’t love to eat Cheerios for dinner and hog the bed. Nor is it that women are more self-sufficient or inclined to solitude. On the contrary: Women are more likely to have strong social networks, which enable them to live alone without being alone. Men are more at risk of withdrawing into isolation that, at the extremes, can be miserable and indeed dangerous.
The contrast emerges clearly in Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. And it matters because the people in question are hardly a negligible demographic. Though they may not realize it, they’re part of a major societal shift. In 1950, Klinenberg reports, 4 million American adults lived alone, which accounted for 9 percent of households. Today, that number is 31 million, a whopping 28 percent of all households.
Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist, traces the development of a diverse, rapidly growing cohort. Sixty years ago, the typical solo dweller was a migrant male laborer out West in a transitional phase. Now, there are several main species in the genus. For young urbanites, it has become a rite of passage to leave behind the Craigslist roommates and sign a lease of one’s own. Divorce rates have soared since 1950, leaving many middle-aged people solitary. Then there are elders who survive their spouses and insist on maintaining their autonomy. Today, “singletons,” as Klinenberg calls his subjects, are more likely to live in Manhattan than Montana, and the majority are women—17 million, compared with 14 million men. (This imbalance owes at least in part to women’s longevity: More of them outlive their husbands than vice versa. Klinenberg doesn’t furnish other reasons.)
The nature of living alone has changed thoroughly over the past century, in ways that make social connections essential. At one time, it was an opportunity for reclusiveness. Religious ascetics and misfits like Thoreau fled human company to commune with God or nature; otherwise, people of all ages tended to lived with family. For women in the early 1900s, living independently was particularly rare.
But modern conditions make it possible to combine an active social and romantic life with the option to retreat to a solitary haven. When you can step outside your door and find three cafes, five bars, and streets teeming with acquaintances and intriguing strangers, living alone is no sentence to solitude. Still less so when, from your kitchen table, you can chat, text, email, or Skype with remote confidants. Meanwhile, women are no longer barred by custom or financial dependence from setting up house on their own. What’s more, sex is not contingent on marriage—and Americans face less pressure both to enter and to remain in wedlock. Klinenberg convincingly argues that the convergence of mass urbanization, communications technology, and liberalized attitudes has driven this trend.
It’s clearly feasible, then, to live alone and sustain thriving relationships of various kinds. But, especially in the later stages of life, it is far from inevitable or effortless. And here is where women enjoy an advantage.