Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How solo can you go?

For an increasingly large number of people, living alone is a viable -- and appealing -- option

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‘It is not good that man should be alone," God pronounces at the beginning of the Old Testament.

Mike Stimpson, 46, begs to differ.

The Winnipegger, who has lived alone for most of his adult life, says it's probably a very good thing that there's no one around to witness his spontaneous outbursts of Kelly Clarkson breakup songs. Or the way he yells at his TV set during certain political shows. Never mind his sartorial slackness.

"If I didn't live alone, I couldn't possibly get away with the way I dress -- or don't dress," says the freelance writer, who shares an apartment with his 10-year-old cat.

Not that he's complaining: "I'm free to do whatever I wish."

Not so long ago, Stimpson, whose longtime girlfriend lives in Ontario, would have been an anomaly.

Until relatively recently, most of us married young, and for life. If death intervened, we either remarried quickly or moved in with relatives. Living alone was seen as a transitional stage between more permanent living arrangements -- whether that be coupling up with a partner or moving into a retirement or nursing home.

Either that, or it designated that you were an old maid or an eternal bachelor, destined to someday die alone -- and possibly be eaten by your cat.

Things have changed.

Now we marry later -- if at all. If we divorce, we may remain single for years, or even decades. Losing a spouse doesn't necessarily mean we'll be moving in with the kids, or with anyone else, for that matter.

Today we cycle in and out of different living arrangements throughout our lives. And compelling statistics show an unprecedented number of us are choosing to forgo the "together" phase altogether and go it alone.

In his new book, Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, calls the solo-living trend "a remarkable social experiment."

"For the first time in human history, great numbers of people -- at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion -- have begun settling down as singletons," Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. (See a review in Saturday's books section.)

Until about the 1950s, he says, there was no society that supported large numbers of people living solo. Since then, it has become incredibly common throughout the developed world. "Wherever there is affluence, and a welfare state, people use their resources to get places of their own," Klinenberg told an interview with Smithsonian.com.

The stats are startling: According to the latest American census, there are more than 32 million people living alone -- about 28 per cent of all households. In 1950, slightly less than 10 per cent of domiciles were one-person households. And for the first time in centuries, more than 50 per cent of Americans are single, compared with 22 per cent in 1950.

Canada's numbers are similar. The results of this country's 2006 census showed nearly 27 per cent of all households were occupied by just one person (the census also marked the first time married people were outnumbered by singles). There were 3,327,050 one-person households, more than three times the number of five-person abodes.

The proportion of Canadians living alone rose five per cent since 2001, Statistics Canada reported. Results of the 2011 census won't be released until fall.

To live alone, you have to be able to afford your own place, of course, but it's not only economics driving the trend, says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.

One of the key drivers, she says, is our naturally aging population. In the 1950s, when the life expectancy was in the early 70s, if you were widowed you likely wouldn't be living alone for long. Today, you could be widowed at 70 and live to 90.

Women's massive entry into the labour force has also had a huge impact. "We don't have to marry, and therefore live with somebody, or stay married, to have a roof over our head and food on our plate," Spinks says during a phone interview

Then there's the communications revolution. Today, living alone isn't necessarily a solitary experience -- what with the telephone, instant messaging and social media at your disposal 24/7 -- and, in fact, can be quite a social one. Canadians who live alone are in more frequent contact with their friends and acquaintances than those living in a couple, according to data from StatsCan's 2008 General Social Survey. Thirty per cent of solo dwellers said they met or spoke with friends every day, compared with 21 per cent of those living in a couple.

"We have the ability today, through technology, to have a very vibrant social network and close personal relationships without necessarily having to fight over leaving the toilet seat up or what brand of peanut butter to buy," says Spinks.

That seems to be the central point in Klinenberg's book: There's a big difference between being alone and being lonely.

"For no matter how socially active, professionally successful, or adept at going solo one makes oneself, there is something uniquely powerful about the intimate connections forged through sharing one's home with another person," he writes.

"Then again, there is something uniquely painful about sharing one's home with someone who has squandered or abused this intimacy and trust.... One reason so many people separate is that they are lonely with each other."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

 

'I can just live on my own terms'

Despite its prevalence, solo living is "one of the least discussed and most poorly understood issues of our time," according to Eric Klinenberg, author of the new book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

Part of the reason, the sociologist says, is it doesn't exist as a "social identity."

No one has done more to remedy that than Sasha Cagen, founder of the website quirkyalone.net and kind of an unofficial spokesperson and advocate for singletons.

Although it has definitely become "more acceptable and cool to be single and choosy" in the decade since she launched the quirkyalone "movement," she says, it hasn't exactly become a flag that people wave proudly.

"I think people more and more really enjoy living alone, but we don't yet have a vocabulary or an idea for how to talk about that pleasure of having our own space, says Cagen, 38, who lives (alone) in San Francisco.

"You fear you'll be viewed as selfish, or that you don't like people, or that there's something wrong with you because you prefer living alone."

Winnipeg radio announcer Frazier says it's not that she's averse to the idea of sharing her life with someone -- just her physical space.

"I don't know why, even when we get married, we have to cohabitate," says the 40-something co-host of the morning show on Fab 94.3 FM and "serial monogamist," who has pretty much lived on her own since she was 18.

True, the benefits of living alone are numerous -- and drinking straight out of the carton is just the beginning.

"I don't always have to have the laundry done or the bed made or the floor vacuumed," Frazier says.

"I can just live on my own terms. And I don't mean that selfishly; I just prefer it this way."

Still, as many solo dwellers can attest, the single-occupant home can be a breeding ground for odd habits and quirks. When Carrie moved in with Big on Sex and the City, she lamented the loss of her "secret single behaviour," which included eating crackers with grape jelly while standing up and reading fashion magazines in the kitchen.

Nancy Gill says that while she loves that there's always hot water when she wants a shower or bath, she'd have to clean up her act if she starting sharing her Wolseley home.

"In the summer, I leave the bathwater in the tub all day in case the pets empty their water dish and need a drink," says the 51-year-old secretary. "I also store pet food in the downstairs bathroom if there is a sale on and I've bought extra."

She also starts undressing halfway up the stairs when she returns hot and sweaty from a long walk with her dog.

Sandra Kehoe, a 41-year-old pharmacist, says she sometimes wonders whether she'll ever be able to cohabitate after more than 10 years of solo living. "I have no fear of judgment when I'm at home," she says. "I can watch the stupidest TV shows, wear the sloppiest clothes, procrastinate, not shower on a day off, floss my teeth while sitting on the couch, eat what I want..."

Of course, it's not as if having the place to yourself 24/7 is without its drawbacks.

"Nobody else is going to do certain unpleasant household chores but you," says Mike Stimpson, a 46-year-old freelance writer. "No one else is going to scrub the toilet."

All of the solo dwellers interviewed agree it's no picnic cooking for one. And there are times, they say, when it'd be nice to have someone to share the details of their day with, or to help with home repairs and weigh in on major household decisions.

Still, Stimpson says the pros of living alone outweigh the cons. Whether or not his long-distance girlfriend will ever learn the extent of his "secret single behaviours" remains to be seen.

"Once you've been living alone long enough, you develop enough quirks and you start to wonder if it's possible to live with somebody else and not be too irritating, or just too weird," he says. "Someday we'll see whether I'm right or wrong."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2012 C1

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