Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Alone or lonely?

By Claude Fischer


It is common to read that the percentage of Americans who live by themselves has increased substantially over the last few decades. It is often the first or second observation in an essay arguing – assuming – that Americans have become more isolated and lonely.

But there are substantial misunderstandings about who lives alone, why they live alone, and what kind of social life those living alone lead. Some types of people who live alone are actually more social than those who share a household.

The trend

Klearchos Kapoutsis via flickr

A common mistake writers make is to take the easily available statistics on how many American homes have a single resident – in 1960 13% and in 2008 28% of homes, over 1 in 4, had only one resident – and to remark on how much living alone has expanded. But that is not the statistic we want. We’re not interested in what’s happened to homes ; we’re interested in what’s happened to people . The percentage of American adults who lived alone in 2008 was 15%, which is a lot less.

Yet, that, too, increased. Around 1900, a few percent of Americans lived by themselves; in 1960, 6% did; and now about 15% do.

The reason

Who lives alone? And why? In 2009, one-fourth of those who lived alone were women 65 and older (see here for the stats and pp. 83-87 here on the general topic). It is the elderly who are especially likely to live alone. Sorting by age and sex, 25% of men 75 years old and older  lived alone in 2009 and 49%, about half , of  women 75 and older – lived alone. (Remember: This is compared to 15% of all adults.) Living alone is largely what Americans do who live long enough to outlive their spouses. And this explains most of the growth in single-person households over the last several decades.

(By the way, do these widows and widowers live alone voluntarily or because their children won’t have them? The evidence strongly shows that the elderly prefer to live alone when they physically and financially can. The elderly are, for example, more likely than young people to tell pollsters that old people living with their adult children is not a good idea.)

Another, smaller component in the expansion of solo-living is the delay of marriage since about 1960. More Americans are waiting longer to marry. And increasingly, many of the single twenty- and young thirty-somethings who once would have stayed with their parents until they faced the preacher now either live alone if they can afford to or with roommates if they cannot until the wedding bells toll.

A third, yet smaller, component of the solo-livers are the divorced – especially divorced men. (Divorced women typically live with children.) Here, we start to get larger proportions of people in single households who would prefer not to live alone. But the divorced, especially the men, do not stay divorced long, a couple of years or so on average, although longer for women.

Most scholars who have studied this topic suggest a much greater proportion of Americans starting living alone, especially after the 1960s, because it became much more affordable to do so – incomes rose, income security increased, and housing options grew – at least until the last couple of decades. In an earlier era, for example, divorced women and their children would often move back to their parents’ home; that has become rarer.  (Whether the current economic catastrophe is reversing the trend and sending people back to sharing homes we will know in a few years.)

Some scholars argue that Americans’ wish to be alone, to cut ties, also grew over the century. Perhaps, but that is not where most of the research points.

No more boarders

boarding house Another place to see the move to residential independence is the virtual end of rooming and boarding. Back around 1900, about 3 percent of Americans (5 percent of men) — many of them immigrant workers and the poor elderly who lacked adult children to live with — roomed or boarded in someone’s home. And about one of 10 households took in boarders, commonly, households run by needy widows.

Today, only about one-half of one percent of Americans are roomers or boarders (despite a small surge in rooming among Hispanics) and those few are increasingly students rather than workers or the elderly. (The stats are from here .)

It appears that for both would-be boarders and would-be boarding-householders (notably, widows), it has become easier to live alone.

Alone or lonely?

In the common telling, writers equate living alone with being alone and lonely. Equating the two is essentially wrong.

Some people who live alone feel lonely because they lack a romantic partner; specifically that is the source of their loneliness. As Ray Orbison sang, “Now only the lonely/ Know the heartaches I’ve been through/ Only the lonely/ Know I cry and cry for you.” The issue is not household arrangements; the issue is love. We should not confuse the two.

And some people who live alone (especially old men) are truly isolated, lacking much contact with others.

But, on the whole and other things being equal, people who live alone have, on average, about as many friends and as active a social life – if not more – than people like themselves who do not live alone. (Quick side point: The singles do not have more sex. Research shows that married people have more sex; there is a benefit to convenience.) If you bracket some of the travails that are correlated with living alone – such as getting divorced; such as getting very old, which typically means getting frailer and having your friends die off – then solo living by itself does not seem to contribute much either to social isolation or feeling lonely.

One probable reason it does not is that people who live alone have fewer at-home commitments – spouses, children,  roommates – that inhibit social life. For young singles in particular, the period they live alone is also a period of exploration and adventure. Getting married and having kids, research shows, lead people, notably women, to lose touch with some of their friends. At the same time, research on widows often notes that many of them, although certainly grieving, attain more of a social life when they are no longer caring for an ill or disabled spouse.

Feeling lonely is a serious issue; it is associated with depression.  But living alone and feeling lonely are two different things. Also, living alone has increased — but loneliness, according to the data,  has not — a topic for a later post.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .