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Selfishness as Virtue

The percentage of Americans living alone has never been higher. While there is every reason to worry about the social implications of the data, Eric Klinenberg is alone and loving it—for all the wrong reasons.

Published on June 10, 2012
Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone
by Eric Klinenberg
Penguin Press, 2012, 288 pp., $27.95

The health of American society is a perennial favorite topic for pundits, intellectuals, professors and politicians, as well it should be. The Founders understood the fragility of a free society and would take comfort knowing that our chattering classes keep watch over it. “A republic, if you can keep it”, warned Benjamin Franklin. Yet the gaze of today’s watchmen too often strays toward the meretricious. As ever, some confuse cause and effect. In these sped-up times, many fixate on the urgent while ignoring the essential. A great many, especially in the social science field, seem mesmerized by metrics, reminding us of Nietzsche’s famous remark that “were it not for the constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, men could not live.” Some see numbers nearly everywhere: GDP, GNP, Gini coefficients, median income, unemployment and demographic data, the fluctuations of the Dow and the S&P indices, and much more besides.

It is widely assumed that we know a lot more about our social circumstances thanks to all these numbers than we did before they were crunched. That is not entirely obvious. With increasing momentum ever since the establishment of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1913, for example, we have become progressively obsessed with economic data to the point of neurosis. Our 19th-century forebears did not lose sleep or get caught up in herd-like trading behavior upon learning that growth in the third quarter of 1873 was much lower than expected, because they never expected anything in particular in the first place.

More generally, one suspects that method and data have too often displaced the search for wisdom and the skills to apply it, hiding ideology and more subtle forms of bias along the way. Perhaps things were clearer when we spoke of political economy and political philosophy, before we hived off social sciences under the name of economics and political science. Perhaps the separation of moral sensibilities rooted in religion from intellectual endeavors is not so enlightened after all. A case in point may be developed through an appreciation of sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

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oing Solo bases itself on relatively new data showing that more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million—roughly one out of every seven adults—live alone. This is a significant increase from 1950, when only 22 percent of American adults were single. It corresponds with an increase in the average age of marriage by five years to 28 for men and 26 for women. Put another way, people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which makes them more numerous than any other domestic unit, including the nuclear family. These are the highest numbers ever recorded since recorders of such things started, well, recording them.

This is very significant data, and here admittedly is a case where numbers reveal a situation that would otherwise not be obvious even to attentive people upon mere observation. Klinenberg does a commendable job of presenting it in a comprehensive yet lucid fashion.

Klinenberg, a professor at New York University and editor of the journal Public Culture, would not be much of a sociologist if he just left it at that, however. And he doesn’t. As his subtitle suggests, he likes what the data tell us; his position could be summed up by the subtitle of a book he commends: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Klinenberg is rarely explicit about his convictions, which saves him the trouble of seriously assaying their implications, but he finally gets to the point directly in his conclusion, asserting that “living alone is an individual choice that’s as valid as the choice to get married or live with a domestic partner. . . . [I]t’s a collective achievement—which is why it’s common in developed nations but not in poor ones.” Klinenberg cites Sweden as a model to be emulated.

This is a novel position, to be sure, considering that no known civilization in human history has lauded solitary living as a social ideal. Either the extended family or, since the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family variant of it, has been a universal social norm for at least the past 10,000 years and arguably much longer than that. And you don’t need data to see why: Society needs children and children need families.

That, however, is actually the least of it. What the Founders knew, but so many contemporaries seem to have forgotten, is that the well-being of any society turns not just on its capacity to procreate but on its ability to transmit a tradition of moral reasoning, and the values that attend it, to future generations. Drawing from the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, they recognized that values are in flux as virtuous or venal cycles reverberate across generations. Not that moral development is to be feared, or that change is in principle to be disparaged, but development and change has to be carefully nurtured by sentries on the lookout for indulgence, corrosion and selfishness. The Founders understood that the good life can only be safeguarded by a good society, and that this indelible connection bestows obligations on individuals to invest in the acculturation of future generations.

To this ancient wisdom, the contemporary social and natural sciences have added powerful evidence over the past quarter century. We are social animals and context is critical in all we do as individuals and as members of groups. Yet Klinenberg somehow manages to ignore the intergenerational ramifications of “going solo.” His selection of supporting evidence is revealing: “Compared with their married counterparts”, he writes, those who live alone

are more likely to eat out and exercise, go to art and music classes, attend public events and lectures, and volunteer. There’s even evidence that people who live alone . . . have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles than families, since they favor urban apartments over large suburban homes.

It’s telling that the activities Klinenberg mentions are put forward self-evidently as barometers of the good life. He and his research assistants interviewed approximately 300 people who live alone, with the majority of research taking place in four boroughs of New York City, “whose diversity”, according to the author, “allowed for a heterogeneous sample within the parameters of a great city.” One of them was a divorced man named Steve, whose revelation is related as follows:

The problem, he realized, was that living with someone—even a woman he loved—meant denying himself the chance to enjoy an unfettered existence: Dating new women. Staying out as long as he wanted and not worrying about anyone else. Watching sports. Seeing movies. Meeting friends . . . Steven had grown to appreciate the virtues of living lightly, without obligation.

Klinenberg’s use here of the word virtue is especially jarring. He is using the dictionary definition (“a good or useful quality of a thing”), but even a source as intellectually thin as Wikipedia understands that, “Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being.” Clearly, virtue requires moral reasoning, so how is it possible to conceive of “virtue” “without obligation”?

Klinenberg’s answer, citing the demographer Andrew Cherlin, is that “one’s primary obligation is [now] to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.” The basis for this assertion is found in Klinenberg’s introduction, in which he invokes German sociologist Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, who claim that, “For the first time in history the individual is becoming the basic unit of social reproduction.” For Klinenberg, procreation and family have been separated such that living alone and being a father or mother are no longer in necessary conflict. This is a foundational proposition and the keystone to the conceptual edifice Klinenberg constructs.

It’s also utter nonsense. Individuals don’t transfer values from one generation to the next. Individuals are biologically incapable of producing a next generation except in the crudest possible sense of the term. Socialization—the process through which a person internalizes what is good and bad, meaningful and meaningless—is shaped by one’s relatives, the friends and associates who surround a person, and typically a canon of texts that is revered and consulted for guidance. The values of expressive individualism guarantee that the values of future generations will be more or less up for grabs for the simple reason that expressive individualists have a difficult time replicating (the demographic data don’t lie) and an even more difficult time socializing a child.

It’s true that expressive individualists do connect with one another for varying periods of time and do at least fairly often have children. But the deliberately atomistic quality of their value system makes it difficult for these children to understand, let alone continue, whatever moral traditions their parents may affirm and display. In this respect, today’s expressive individualists bear some comparison to a 19th-century millennial sect called the Harmony Society. Founded in Germany in 1785, the Harmonists were a Protestant community that flourished in Indiana between 1825 and 1850. At the time, its members were known for their social conscience and economic success. Yet these virtues weren’t enough to ensure the sect’s survival for one simple reason: It promoted celibacy. The Harmonists, like today’s expressive individualists, were ethical, hardworking, productive people, but their way of life proved unsustainable because their values failed to foster successor generations.

It is no coincidence, then, that children are almost entirely absent from Going Solo. Or that Klineberg suggests that Americans emulate the Swedes, whose fertility rate stands at 1.67 children born per woman, significantly below replacement. He never addresses the topic of childrearing, as opposed to modern techniques of childbearing. Ironically, the closest he gets to the subject is in the introduction, where the reader learns that Henry David Thoreau’s mother frequently came to deliver home-cooked meals to her son as he was experiencing supposedly self-sufficient solitude at Walden Pond.

It’s striking when Klinenberg’s rare invocations of children do occur. To support his thesis that solo living is on the inevitable rise, Klinenberg notes the prevalence of children growing up in single bedrooms. He cites a report by the William Gladden Foundation that asserts, “More children today have less adult supervision than ever before in American history . . . and many begin their self-care at about age eight.” Klinenberg portrays this as a positive trend that is catalyzing self-sufficiency. One wonders how he would apply this analytical approach to a recent study showing that the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: More than half of births to American women under thirty occur outside marriage, and many of these children will be raised by single mothers. Such an upbringing may foster independence, yes; but researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school and suffering severe emotional and behavioral problems.1 Klinenberg doesn’t mention any of this research.

By far the most frequent place children appear in Going Solo is in testimonials by divorced parents who express gratitude for having them and sorrow for not seeing them more often. Interestingly, while Klinenberg tends to praise the decision to delay parenthood in the name of self-actualization, several of his interviews reflect on the challenge of significantly altering one’s personal habits later in life and abandoning the ways of a “singleton.” “You become a lot pickier when you’re older”, explains one interviewee. Another relates, “Women can be suspicious of never-married men in their late thirties and forties.” Patterns and preferences harden over time, but not to fear. “However enriching it may be”, advises Klinenberg, “becoming a single parent is also the most challenging way to attract domestic companionship.” He then immediately adds: “There is another, more popular alternative for people who want to live alone but need someone to care for or something to help stave off loneliness: getting a pet.”

In other words, the role of children Klinenberg appreciates most has nothing much to do with social reproduction or the preservation of a society’s moral compass, but rather with companionship. This conceptualization is reflected in the parenting style of baby boomers and members of Generation X who aim to be “friends” with their children. Inadvertently, one would presume, Klinenberg has created a functional equivalence between a child and a Chihuahua.

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uch assumptions are no longer surprising. To the extent that America’s elite shares a common value, it is expressive individualism, the idea that one’s greatest priority ought to be self-expression, self-cultivation and self-fulfillment. Klinenberg is probably right to suggest that very few people these days wince at the manifestations of expressive individualism or are prepared to buck the tide in the lives of their own families. Who is willing to discourage a child from investing in a second or a third academic degree (even if this defers starting a family) or taking a job at a top law firm (even if the job leaves little time for family life), or traveling the world (even if the instability doesn’t allow for child rearing)? Who is anyone, even a parent, to discourage a child’s dreams of self-fulfillment?

Klinenberg notes that when he was a graduate student at Berkeley he knew several students in their late twenties whose adviser, a pioneering female scholar, actively discouraged them from entering relationships before they had made their mark. “Don’t you owe it to yourself?” she would ask. And yet the proximate results of this type of expressive individualism are not the ultimate consequences. The effects are felt across generations.

That is a problem, but not one that bothers Klinenberg. In the cacophony of appeals to save the planet, create jobs, reduce the national debt, and end world poverty, it’s rare to hear anyone champion the value of social reproduction. But the intergenerational transfer of cultural capital doesn’t just happen automatically. It requires time, money, space and lots of institutional support. It also requires prioritization and encouragement. While America’s columnists, talking heads and progressive intellectuals are consumed with economic growth, technological development, individual opportunity and social safety nets, few question how well America is developing the character of the next generation.

It’s no accident that so many Americans have embraced expressive individualism or that American commentators avoid discussing how well we are transferring values from one generation to the next. After all, America is the land of the free, and that freedom grew in part out of a protest against that which came before  (the medieval Catholic Church, the British Crown, the ways of the “old world”). The very act of journeying from somewhere else to the New World or from established colonies to the American frontier was an act of departure even if that journey allowed for continuity in a different place. A country born of immigrants is cautious in how forcefully it speaks of the present generation’s debt to the past or its responsibility to the future. But the Founders also greatly valued organic community, understanding that the chief distinguishing feature of a free society is that it maintains order through the self-regulation of citizens living together rather than by dint of the authorities of state, the internalization of civic values being the central bulwark against the deformation of liberty into license and chaos.

Nonetheless, American individualism seems to have been fed a rich diet in recent decades. That diet has consisted of both the general infusion of market-fundamentalist metaphors in our social and intellectual life and by a range of technological innovations. Both phenomena threaten to deplete stock of social capital.2 Individualism has come to mean no limits on our freedom of maneuver, no obligations arising from a shared history, community and culture. As a matter of objective and, yes, quantitatively measurable reality, we are indeed “going solo”, and most Americans seem to be fine with that—as the generally positive reception of Klinenberg’s book seems to reflect.

The recognition that we are who we are because of our elders raises uncomfortable questions about our responsibility to future generations. If someone in my past forsook instant gratification to allow me to become who I am, does this obligate me to do the same? Am I responsible for ensuring that certain values outlast and outlive me? America’s strength is a function of many factors, but certainly one of them is that for generations citizens answered these questions affirmatively. The popularity of “going solo”, which Klinenberg’s data strongly affirms, doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are answering “no” to these questions. It’s worse than that: As more of us spend more of our lives alone, we’re less likely to even confront them. By default, we are now allowed the novel conceit that selfishness is a virtue.

 

1See Elizabeth Wildsmith, Nicole R. Steward-Streng and Jennifer Manlove, “Childbearing Outside of Marriage: Estimates and Trends in the United States”, Child Trends Research Brief (November 2011).

2See Giles Slade, “Electric Company”, The American Interest (September/October 2010).

 

Benjamin E. Schwartz works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.