More People Living Alone, Saving Up For Robot Friends

The judicial sentence "end up alone" incorrectly lacks agency, as if a woman simply wakes up one day and discovers the other side of her bed empty. Maybe she likes sleeping in the middle?

Apr 9, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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My fingers are itching with hypocrisy as I type this. As I nod knowingly with every new graph of The New Yorker article, "Why Are So Many Americans Living By Themselves," I'm also planning tonight's regularly scheduled dinner for two, mentally packing someone else's bags for a weekend trip and drafting a thank-you email from "the both of us."

Because despite my current (and hopefully permanent) coupled up status, I'm dying to read sociologist Eric Klinenberg's new book, "Going Solo," chronicling the tidal wave of "singletons" as The New Yorker calls them. I still identify with "Sex and the City" more than I ever will "The Brady Bunch." 

Today, more than fifty per cent of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of all households have just one resident, and five million adults younger than thirty-five live alone. 
Are you scandalized by "the numbers"? They neither shock nor frighten me, as "the numbers" are so wont to do in very long, very scary articles. Because when I look around at the women I've looked up to, every single one has found herself single at some point.

My great-grandmother was married so many times bothering with hyphenation was overkill, and she still lived alone for most of her life. My grandmother has headed up her own household since I can remember and is only now at 87 allowing anyone to do stuff for her. And my own mother just retired to a studio apartment in the Caribbean -- and couldn't be happier. 

These were women who were told, and who subsequently taught, that life is best conquered alone. That partners, while very helpful when compliant, are the ancillary products to a life well lived, not the necessary anchor of it. So it's no surprise to me that they "ended up alone" because in the end that's how they wanted it.

The judicial sentence "end up alone" incorrectly lacks agency, as if a woman simply wakes up one day and discovers the other side of her bed empty. Maybe she likes sleeping in the middle? I wonder, if a body at rest stays at rest, does a woman who's "single" stay single? 

What's even more puzzling is the distorted picture we've painted of solitary life when so many of us spend the bulk of our time leading one. Can you think of one positive or realistic pop culture example of the single life? Now, switch off the TV and look in the mirror -- or out the window. As the New Yorker points out, "Aside from monastic seclusion ...  it is hard to come up with a solitary life that doesn’t invite pity, or an enviable loner who’s not cheating the rules." But haven't "the rules" changed?

And yet the reputation of modern solitude is puzzling, because the traits enabling a solitary life—financial stability, spiritual autonomy, the wherewithal to buy more dishwashing detergent when the box runs out—are those our culture prizes.
So many of us are encouraged to don the trappings of independence -- degrees, desks, down payments -- and then derided for crowing ourselves rulers of our own tiny kingdoms. In "Going Solo," Klinenberg's book, one person referred to the hundreds of people of died alone during Chicago's record heat wave in 1995 as "a secret society of people who live and die alone." But the secret's been out and "society" has changed. That's where the whole robot thing comes in.
But the cautionary gist of [Klinenberg's] study is basically: it’s an awful way to live in moments of disaster. Caught off guard, solo-goers can be left without recourse. This is a problem particularly for the elderly, who are often rendered single by the death of a spouse and whose risk of health or domestic disaster runs high. 
To solve the problem of being single, according to The New Yorker, Klinenberg "has real hopes for social robots." To be fair, he also suggests better funding for elderly caretaker programs. But the "social robot" thing? It's perhaps the most hilariously convoluted "solution" to the issue of solitude, which several researchers say has not been helped by technology, namely "social media."

We all know being alone no more causes loneliness than being with someone guarantees anything but bigger grocery bills. But the unending stream of very scary and very long articles about the state of the American single most definitely means this topic won't die alone before I do. So while I sock a bit away for my hope chest and even more for my retirement fund, I'll also be saving for my R2-D2.