IN THE BEGINNING of the Old Testament, God creates the world one day at a time: The heavens and the earth. Water. Light. Day and night. Living species of every kind. After each creation, God declares: “It is good.” But the tone changes when God makes Adam. Suddenly, God pronounces the first thing that is not good, lo tov: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” So God makes Eve, and Adam is no longer on his own.
In time, injunctions against being alone moved from theology to philosophy and literature. In Politics, Aristotle wrote, “The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.” The Greek poet Theocritus insisted that “man will ever stand in need of man,” and the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius proclaimed that “human beings are social animals.”
So, too, are other animals. (Aristotle, alas, was only half right.) Beasts will indeed live on their own when conditions favor it, particularly when there is a shortage of food. Otherwise, most species fare better in groups. Collective living carries some costs, including competition for status and occasional outbursts of violence. But the benefits – protection from predators, cooperative hunting, efficient reproduction, among others – can easily outweigh them. Our closest animal relatives, the apes, are typically social and live in stable units. Even orangutans, which are notoriously solitary, live with their mothers during their first seven or eight years, and as the Dutch primatologist Carel van Schaik has discovered, orangutans living in a calorically rich swamp forest in Sumatra are “every bit as sociable” as their cousins, the chimpanzees.
Orangutans are not the only misrepresented creatures. Hermit crabs, it turns out, are actually quite social, living in communities of up to one hundred because they cannot thrive alone. One manual for prospective pet owners advises that “it’s best to always have at least two hermit crabs in a tank – if possible at least two of each species.” Not because they need protection or help with food gathering, but for a simpler reason: When alone, hermit crabs get stressed and unhealthy. Their bodies fail them. They may even lose a leg or a claw.
Isolation can also be unbearably stressful for people, as policy makers in different historical eras have recognized. In the ancient world, exile ranked among the most severe forms of punishment, exceeded only by execution. (Though some called exile a fate worse than death.)
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern prison systems popularized the use of solitary confinement because, as the English jurist William Paley put it, isolation “would augment the terror of the punishment” and thereby deter crime. Today, the United States alone detains roughly 25,000 people in “supermax” prisons where, one prominent psychologist writes, inmates “experience levels of isolation… that are more total and complete and literally dehumanized than has been possible in the past.” A common phrase used to describe this condition conveys one widespread belief about being cut off from others: It is, say both critics and advocates of solitary confinement, a “living death.”
Nothing better expresses the human interest in collective living than the formation of families. Throughout history and in all cultures, families, not individuals, have been the fundamental building blocks of social and economic life. And for good reason. As evolutionary biologists argue, living with others offered a competitive advantage to members of the first human societies because it provided security, access to food, and a means of reproduction. Through natural selection, argue the social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, our species developed a genetic disposition to establish close social ties.
In 1949, the Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock published a survey of some 250 “representative cultures” from different eras and diverse parts of the world. He reported, “The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.”
Since then, scholars have challenged Murdock’s argument, identifying domestic arrangements, such as the kibbutz, that don’t fit into his nuclear model. Yet their counterexamples are always alternative collectives, typically including more people than the conventional family. Though this debate remains unsettled, there’s one thing both sides would agree on: Human societies, at all times and places, have organized themselves around the will to live with others, not alone.
BUT NOT ANYMORE.
During the past half century, our species has embarked on 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. Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. (The Pew Research Center reports that the average age of first marriage for men and women is “the highest ever recorded, having risen by roughly five years in the past half century.”)We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others – even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together, alone.
Not long ago, it might have made sense to treat living on our own as a transitional stage between more durable arrangements, whether coupling up with a partner or moving into an institutional home. This is no longer appropriate, because today, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone. Naturally, we are adapting. We are learning to go solo, and crafting new ways of living in the process.
Numbers never tell the whole story, but in this case the statistics are startling. In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households. In those days, living alone was by far most common in the open, sprawling Western states – Alaska, Montana, and Nevada – that attracted migrant workingmen, and it was usually a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.
Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million – roughly one out of every seven adults – live alone. (This figure excludes the 8 million Americans who live in voluntary and non-voluntary group quarters, such as assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and prisons.) People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home. Surprisingly, living alone is also one of the most stable household arrangements. Over a five-year period, people who live alone are more likely to stay that way than everyone except married couples with children.
Contemporary solo dwellers are primarily women: about 17 million, compared to 14 million men. The majority, more than 15 million, are middle-age adults between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-four. The elderly account for about 10 million of the total.* Young adults between eighteen and thirty-four number more than 5 million, compared to 500,000 in 1950, making them the fastest-growing segment of the solo-dwelling population.
Unlike their predecessors, people who live alone today cluster together in metropolitan areas and inhabit all regions of the country. The cities with the highest proportion of people living alone include Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and Miami. One million people live alone in New York City, and in Manhattan, more than half of all residences are one-person dwellings.