Inspired by the cover story in the Atlantic about the decline of nuclear families, and the questions the magazine asked me in the interview about their cover story, I wanted to address one of the most unsettling dynamics of modern life – the rise of individualism. I wrote about that in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. In a previous post, “Is individualism wrecking society?”, I shared the first part of the key section in my book. Here’s the second and last part.
What I wanted to know when I started this project was what people were doing with the cornucopia of choices and possibilities that define modern life. What I found was that people who could have chosen to live in all sorts of ways sometimes chose family. They created households with two or three or even four generations. Or they returned to their hometowns—or never left. Or they raised children on their own but named twelve godparents or combined households with other solo parents and their children. Or they created new versions of old-fashioned villages, knocking down fences that once separated their yards or gathering in cul-de-sacs or pocket communities or founding cohousing communities.
The ever-single and the single-again-after-divorce-or-widowhood looked around at all the other single people and formed a household of friends who all lived under the same roof. Sometimes couples or families joined in too. Or they opened their homes to the people who touched their hearts; those people might have been kids who had aged out of foster care or fellow immigrants.
The apotheosis of the modern individualistic society is the single person with no kids living truly alone, residentially. Untethered to a spouse or kids or even a roommate and free to flee to beckoning opportunities on shinier shores, these people should be most likely to confirm the worst fears of the purveyors of doom.
I met people in that demographic. (I’m one of them myself). I saw them creating comfortable homes where they settled in for the long haul, savoring long stretches of productive or relaxing solitude, welcoming visits from family and friends, looking after aging friends and relatives who needed help, and hosting salons in their living rooms. I learned about their regular get-togethers with their parents and siblings and friends, their service on boards and their involvement in civic organizations, and their trips that ended with the loving anticipation of being back home again.
In the stories we tell each other about the workings of society, it is the married people and the traditional families who are holding us all together. Single people—especially those who live alone—are the isolates, holed up in their apartments, lonely and friendless. Yet when social scientists do systematic research, they find something quite different. Results of several studies—some of them based on representative national surveys—show that it is the single people, and not the married ones, who are creating and sustaining the ties that bind us. Single people are more likely than married people to do what it takes to keep grown siblings together. They also spend more time helping, encouraging, and socializing with neighbors and friends. Singles are more likely to live with relatives than married people are, and they do more than their share of caring for aging relatives and others in need. Asked the question “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?,” it was the single people, more often than the married, who said yes. Single people also visit their parents more and exchange help with them more, even when their parents are still relatively young and healthy.
You can see the dynamic unfolding if you follow people over the course of their adult lives. In the best example so far, a pair of researchers enlisted a nationally representative sample of more than twenty-seven hundred Americans to tell them about their lives over the course of six years. All were single and under fifty and not cohabiting when the study started. Most were in fairly regular contact with family and friends. For those who married, though, things changed. As married people, they had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends than they had when they were single. It wasn’t just a honeymoon effect. Three years after their weddings, they were still less connected to family and friends, and by the end of the study, they still had not resumed the relationships they had had before.
Children cannot explain the difference. The finding that single people—especially those who have always been single—are more connected to family and friends than married people holds up for people who have children and people who don’t. It is true for men and women, whites and non-whites, poor people and rich people.
Compared with people who live with others, single people and solo dwellers are also more engaged in the life of the cities and towns where they live. They take more music and art classes, participate in more public events and civic groups, go out to dinner more often, and pursue more informal social activities.
I was impressed by the solo dwellers I interviewed, but not everyone’s personal story is an inspiring one. There are miserable and lonely and narcissistic people who live alone, just as there are miserable and lonely and narcissistic people who live with spouses, kids, and other relatives or friends. Even people who feel totally contented and connected, who happily take advantage of constant-access opportunities of the internet, social media, and mobile devices, acknowledge that they face challenges. A bigger and more diverse social network is the twenty-first-century interpersonal prize; the time and talents it takes to juggle all the threads are some of the costs.
The trade-off between the security of a set path through life with a small, dense set of enduring relationships and the freedom of an ever-growing cache of opportunities is one for the ages. It is not a unique dilemma of modern life. What is often lost in the debates is that opportunities are not obligations. I met people, young and old, without televisions or Facebook accounts. And just because you can live alone far away from the place where you were born does not mean that you can no longer choose to live with family and across the street from lifelong friends in the town where you grew up.
Since How We Live Now was published, new research on the implications of embracing individualistic values has been published. The findings are quite encouraging, especially for people who are single.
[In How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, this section on individualism appears on pages 241-246 in Chapter 8, “There’s Nothing Sweeter Than Solitude: Living Alone.”]