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The DePaulia

NYU Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg kicks solo living stigma

NYU professor Eric Klinenberg speaks at DePaul Sept. 19. Klinenberg talks about his book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.” (Parker Asmann / The DePaulia)
NYU professor Eric Klinenberg speaks at DePaul Sept. 19. Klinenberg talks about his book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.” (Parker Asmann / The DePaulia)

When you think of the words “alone” and “lonely,” you likely think of an isolated individual sitting in a dimly lit corner contemplating the events of their life. But that’s not the case for everyone.

Students and faculty ventured to the third floor of the Student Center on Friday to hear New York University Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg discuss the greater themes of his new book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” and debunk the myths that tend to surround living alone.

“I was wrong about nearly everything I thought before I conducted the research for this book,” said Klinenberg before entering into his dialogue about his findings.

As with many literary works, writers often coin a temporary title to use throughout the writing process until they have their light bulb moment. And Klinenberg was no different. With original plans to have the book titled, “Alone in America,” the research that Klinenberg and his team of more than 30 graduate students from NYU conducted soon proved how misleading that title truly was.

Historically, those who lived alone were generally single men who were migrant workers. According to the United States Census on Housing, in 1950 only 9 percent of the American population was living alone, and only 22 percent of men were unmarried.

However, we’ve seen an astronomical shift in those numbers. Today more than 50 percent of the population is single, going against the norm that people must marry young, which has been so traditionally evident in various cultures.

“Living alone is one of the biggest social changes of the last 50 years; we’ve just failed to identify it,” Klinenberg said.

In 2002, Klinenberg published his first book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Throughout that process, he explored the disastrous heat wave that took place in Chicago in July 1995, where temperatures soared above 100 degrees and in one week’s time, more than 700 people perished. With that, Klinenberg stumbled upon the driving force for his latest work.

“I was unbelievably fascinated with how many people I found living alone, and I had to dive in and find out more,” Klinenberg said.

With more than 300 interviews conducted across the United States and Europe, Klinenberg and his team developed a handful of structural consistencies among the places that had the highest rates of people living alone, mostly in Scandinavia.

Wealth, a flourishing market, a strong welfare state and the growing independence of women all contributed to high rates of solo living. To complement these findings, the research team also found that men and women living alone felt a higher sense of freedom, personal control, self-realization, solitude and connection.

“For young adults, living alone is how you grow up and become an adult. You retreat after certain experiences to build yourself back up and make a stronger return into the social world,” Klinenberg said.

At first thought, it’s easy to think people living alone are more prone to burrow into their living spaces and shut themselves out from the world. But it’s quite the opposite. Klinenberg found that people living by themselves transform the cities they live in into their own living rooms, and are more prone to enter into the social world.

James Kim, a first-year transfer student at DePaul and native of South Korea said Klinenberg’s findings were right on point.

“Traditionally in South Korea, families all live together; it only seems to be the elderly toward the end of their lives who are living alone,” Kim said. “I think growing up in this type of environment made living alone more appealing to me. I mean I absolutely love it.”

Although not everyone in attendance fits the demographic that Klinenberg had centered his research on, it was clear that, at the very least, he had opened up people’s eyes to think of living alone in a more positive light, one that doesn’t imply disconnectedness.

Sam Jacobson, a senior at Chicago’s Northeastern University, attended the event for a sociology class he was currently enrolled in. He had no previous knowledge of the author, or the work he was discussing.

“I enjoy living with other people, but I think I’d also feel comfortable living alone, it’d be easier, that’s for sure,” Jacobson said. “This definitely shed some light on a topic I hadn’t really thought too much about.”

Living alone gets a bad rep far too frequently, and people tend to forget there’s also nothing lonelier than living with the wrong person. Klinenberg successfully deflated the negative air that surrounded the topic. After all, we all now live in a vastly changing social world where more people are coming in and out of marriages, opting to be single, and finding a greater sense of independence.

“It’s our interdependence that makes our independence possible,” Klinenberg said.

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    B BishopSep 22, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Great article – and I so admire Klinenberg’s work. He inspired me to create an online “blogazine” to combat that negative image of singles. Flying High Solo features stories about fascinating singles doing good work in their jobs and communities with tips on good living for all. It’s a relationship-neutral space in a world where the media usually portray singles as somehow lacking. And, as Klinenberg points out — we’re not!