Living Arrangements, Social Structure, and Public Policy
Do you live alone, with friends, or with family? Your living arrangements can teach us a great deal about social structure.
According to an August 2013 U.S. Census report, nearly one-third of Americans live alone now, a rise from just under one in five in 1970. Just one in five households now include children under eighteen, compared with forty percent in 1970.
These changes reflect more than just personal choices, but social changes. Being able to live alone is primarily a function of prosperity; it generally costs more to sustain a single household. The economic growth that came with industrialization and the rise of women’s wages meant that more people could afford to live on their own. As young adults get married later now than they did decades ago, they are more likely to have some time where they live alone as well. Also, people live longer now and are thus more likely to outlive a spouse and end up living alone at some point in their lives.
By contrast, the Census reports that multigenerational family households, or families with several generations living together, are more likely to be poor. And the effects of the Great Recession meant many young adults (and some not so young) had no choice but to live with their parents, roommates, or others in order to get by financially.
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone explores these and related trends in depth, supplemented by several hundred interviews with people living alone. He notes that in major cities like New York, Washington DC, Denver, and Chicago the proportion of people living alone is even higher than the national average, ranging from 35 to 50 percent of all households.
Klinenberg argues that the increase in people living alone is not necessarily a bad thing; he points to research finding that people who live alone are not necessarily lonelier than people living with others (and notes that a stressful living arrangement can make someone feel lonelier). Because so many people who live alone are in cities, they are not necessarily isolated, either. They are more likely to spend time with friends and participate in the local social scene. He suggests that new forms of social networking do not isolate people from one another, but instead that the people he interviewed reported needing more time to themselves, having busy social lives and work commitments.
Perhaps the most compelling part of Klinenberg’s book looks at some of the challenges of aging alone, particularly when people begin to have trouble caring for themselves. Assisted living homes are out of the price range for most elderly individuals and their families, and for some of those who are elderly or ill, moving in with relatives may cut them off from the social ties they have in their community if it means moving far away. But some people have no family members to move in with, even if they wanted to.
For his research, Klinenberg attended a mass funeral in Los Angeles for people whose families were either too poor to bury them or those who had no family at all. The county investigates each case in order to find a relative to notify if no next of kin is known, in some cases interviewing neighbors and searching their personal effects in an effort to find someone who might know a family member. He trails a county worker who sets out to find the family of a deceased elderly woman, whose only emergency contact was her local drug store delivery person.
With the rise of aging baby boomers, Klinenberg suggests that policy makers need to create strategies for dealing with some of the public health issues that emerge as people age. Meals on Wheels programs not only are vital for delivering food, but provide human interaction for people who might be too frail to leave home. Transportation options for the elderly are important, particularly for those who don’t have family members to take them to doctor’s appointments.
Klinenberg concludes that a large proportion of Americans will live alone at some time during their lives: sometimes by choice, as one achieves a certain amount of success and independence and can afford a place of their own without a roommate, and sometimes involuntarily, due to death of a spouse or the loss of a partner through divorce. Rather than simply encourage people to live with others—which may or may not be desirable or possible—he suggests that we create and enhance community-based services for those who live alone.
What suggestions do you have for policy makers to help elderly people who live alone, who may not wish to move in with family members, or who don’t have family members they can move in with?