Living alone and loving it

  • March 24, 2012

By Sue McAllister
Staff Writer, SJ Mercury News

There are 31 million adults in this country who never have to worry about someone else eating the last carton of yogurt in the refrigerator. Who never have to nag about dirty dishes languishing in the sink. Who never have to squabble over the electricity bill.

Nearly a third of American households are made up of adults living by themselves, with no roommates, spouses, partners or family members in the household.

San Leandro resident Chris Gember, who has nearly always lived solo, has found many valuable rewards to living on her own besides the welcome tranquillity of not worrying about whether roommates will be partying loudly when she comes home.

"You can indulge your curiosity and your thirst for knowledge, and you can live life at your own pace," says Gember, 60.

New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg says that the rise of what he calls "singletons," or adults who live alone, is "the biggest social change of the last 60 years that we have failed to identify." In his new book, "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone," he writes that the number of solo dwellers has shot up since 1950, both numerically and proportionally. Back then, a total of about 4 million adults were living alone, or 9 percent of households. That increase has both societal implications -- what kind of housing should cities build if more people choose to live alone? -- and personal ones, he says.

The increase in singleton living is most pronounced in metropolitan areas, Klinenberg says, and in general, policymakers and businesses have not done enough to address this flourishing demographic segment. For example, while homebuilders typically concentrate on constructing single-family homes, trends show that apartments and smaller houses and condos, especially near city centers, would serve this population better.

The reasons for the increase in adults living alone are many. First of all, Klinenberg says, rising prosperity in the last several decades meant more people could afford to live alone. Subsidized housing, in-home care and public transportation have all played a part in allowing more people to live solo. And as more women entered the paid labor market, "they gained the capacity to delay marriage and also to end a bad marriage without sentencing themselves to a lifetime of poverty or moving back into their families' homes," he says.

With the exception of one semester during college and a couple of years when she cared for her ailing mother, Gember has lived alone ever since she left home in San Leandro to study theater at San Francisco State at age 18.

She has worked in theater, and as an elementary and high school teacher, and even did a three-month stint at sea teaching sailors aboard a Navy vessel.

"You can take risks with your career; there was no one to stop me," says Gember, who has also studied karate and puppetry, and is now a substitute teacher. She also volunteers at her local library and spends time restoring family antiques and gradually remodeling the home she grew up in, doing much of the work herself. "By being on your own, you kind of get this resilience and courage," she says.

Technology -- starting with telephones and television -- provides another reason solo living has become more palatable to some. "When you add in Skype and Facebook and email and Meetup and Craigslist and all of the things on the Internet, suddenly you can be deeply connected to other people and ideas" even while living alone, Klinenberg says.

Tracy resident Susan Aceves, in her mid-50s, had been married twice and decided that she "wasn't really good at it," she says laughingly. A retired chemist with no children, she has now lived happily by herself for 10 years and cares for about a dozen dogs at a time as part of a Greyhound rescue program. "You really get to know yourself better" when living alone, she says.

During her chemistry career, she said, she worked and was friends mostly with men, but in her solo life, she's established strong relationships with more women. Many she met in person through the dog world, but she often keeps in touch electronically, as many of them are in other states. A couple of her women friends have gotten divorced in recent years, and Aceves says she thinks her solo life has provided a good example for them as they start anew.

The only drawback she sees to living alone? She could occasionally use an extra set of hands around the house, especially when it's time to give medication to squirming puppies. "Other than that, no, I can't complain."

Living alone is not all rosy, of course. It's more expensive than sharing housing with a spouse or a roommate who can help pay the rent or mortgage, electricity and water bills, for one thing. And for those whose relationships have ended badly, there can be sadness associated with starting a new life on one's own.

But Klinenberg says his research indicates that, contrary to popular belief, people who live alone do not suffer disproportionately from feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Santa Clara resident Charles Cigna, 56, has lived in his own apartment for about four years, following stints living with girlfriends, roommates or his brother. On balance, he says, he is happier living alone than in any of the other situations. Roommates, he said, were the worst: "They're sloppy and they use your food," he says, echoing an oh-so-common complaint. And once, despite his "no pets" rule, a roommate sneaked in a 4-foot iguana without telling Cigna. So now, despite the fact that living alone can occasionally be lonely, as well as slightly more expensive, he says, "It's worth the peace of mind."

The age group that's experienced the biggest increase in singletons since the 1950s is the 18- to 34-year-olds, says Klinenberg. Many young adults choose to live with roommates when they first leave their parents homes or finish college. But living alone is a goal for many, especially when the excitement of coming home to roommates' surprise house guests has worn off.

Bonnie Gould, a marriage and family therapist in San Jose who also works with single adults, says living alone can be an important transition for young people.

"It's launched them into official adulthood," she says. "They're now responsible for their own lives, and they're hopefully paying their own bills and cooking for themselves."

Joe Ng, 30, moved out of his parents' home when he was 22 and now lives by himself in San Francisco near the Cow Palace.

He lived for a couple of years with a friend, but "we didn't want to ruin our friendship" because of normal roommate quarrels.

He loves living alone, he says -- so much so that he's told his girlfriend of four years that he doesn't want her to move in.

"I like the freedom," says Ng, a Cal State East Bay marketing graduate who works two jobs and about 50 hours a week. "I want to go home and do what I want to to relax, and not look at other people."

GOING SOLO

By Eric
Klinenberg
Penguin Press
288 pages, $27.95

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