More Are Living Singly, For Better Or Worse

What if society were changing, really rapidly, and no one noticed?

Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, says that's exactly what's happening.

"More and more people are opting to live by themselves than ever before in our society," he says. "It's a global phenomenon, and in this country it's happened in the last 60 years, and we're not talking about it much."

In 1950, 22 percent of U.S. adults were unmarried, and 4 million, or 9 percent of all households, were living singly. As of 2010 (the latest year available), more than half of all adults were single, and 31 million, or about 28 percent of all households, were living by themselves. (That latter number leaves out the eight million in assisted living, nursing homes or prisons.)

A color-coded "living-alone map" of Philadelphia _ showing the proportion of nonfamily households _ displays a rich band of singles in Center City, about a mile square from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill, and also, as you might expect, in West Philadelphia, near the universities. The town is richly strewed with pockets that are 10 to 15 percent solo.

The growing singles sector shows "resourcefulness and originality," Klinenberg says, "in creating rich, diverse social networks that function as family, as support, as safety." Most singles are not isolated couch-sitters. Millions are engaged, committed citizens.

According to U.S. Census data, nearly half of the self-living are between 35 and 64. Those 65 and over number 10 million. Adults 18 to 34 make up five million (compared with 500,000 in 1950), the fastest-growing sector of singles. Both the figures and their meaning are disputed. That's social science for you. But many people look at these figures, especially the shrinkage _ or is it rightsizing? _ of the married segment, and see a huge change.

Klinenberg thinks U.S. society should recognize the shift to singlehood. Should we redesign metro areas to be more single-friendly? Provide more affordable housing for young singles, better institutions for the old, infirm, and vulnerable?

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