Singular Lifestyle Experts
Are You Selfish to Want to Live Alone?
Singles lifestyle expert Bella DePaulo, takes on a website that equates the rise in the number of singles in America with the demise of our society.
Photo by Todd Young
“…change has to be carefully nurtured by sentries on the lookout for indulgence, corrosion and selfishness.” That’s the view attributed to the Founding Fathers by American Interest contributor Benjamin E. Schwartz in his indictment of the growing trend toward living alone. We solo dwellers are the ones being selfish and indulgent, when we should be married-with-children sentries watching out for other people headed down the road to corrosion.
Schwartz does not like Eric Klinenberg’s suggestion in Going Solo that the rise of living alone represents a collective achievement. He does not like Klinenberg’s book, and he is really miffed that so many other people do like it. He thinks that the positive arguments put forward about living alone amount to an attempt to recast selfishness as a virtue.
People who live alone, he thinks, are seeking “instant gratification” and abdicating their responsibility “for ensuring that certain values outlast and outlive” them.
Schwartz is worried about the next generation. “Individuals are biologically incapable of producing a next generation except in the crudest possible sense of the term.” I think he is saying that using reproductive technology to have children is crude, but I’m not entirely sure. In any case, that’s not his main gripe. He’s more worried about “social reproduction,” the question of “how well America is developing the character of the next generation.”
People who live alone, Schwartz seems to be arguing, are not socializing the next generation. We’re too caught up in our “expressive individualism,” which he defines as “the idea that one’s greatest priority ought to be self-expression, self-cultivation and self-fulfillment.”
He does seem to realize that some of the people who are living alone were once married but are currently divorced. (There’s no mention of being widowed.) He also knows that there are lots of single parents — whether divorced or always single — who are raising children. Somehow, none of those people get credit for socializing the next generation. He instead ascribes to the myth that the children of single parents are doomed.
I have addressed the overwrought take on the supposedly pitiful children of single parents many times before, so that’s not what I will discuss here. Instead, I want to critique two other assumptions: that solo dwellers do not connect with other people except in the most self-indulgent ways (to go to a football game or a movie, for example), and that the proliferation of choices about how to live is a bad thing.
To read Schwartz is to believe that people who are single have nothing to do but play (another myth debunked here). He mentions the evidence that single people go out to dinner more often than married people do, but not that they also stay in touch more, and more often exchange help with, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors.
He also does not acknowledge that single people often provide more than their share of the caring of aging relatives. Oddly, he does not seem to recognize the many ways that adults can contribute to the socializing of the next generation other than raising them in nuclear family households. Teaching, mentoring, befriending, pitching in to help with other people’s kids, or just hanging out with kids — none of that seems to count as an investment “in the acculturation of future generations.”
Maybe the more fundamental problem with Schwartz’s argument, though, is that he seems to implicitly condemn a fact of contemporary life — that we have ever more choices about how to live. I think Schwartz would be happy if we all married, had kids, and stayed married.
He cannot seem to allow that for some people, marrying and having kids is the good life, but that it is not the best life for everyone — nor would it be best for society if everyone followed the same life path.
I think we all benefit when people who do not want to be parents, and who would not be very good at it, do not feel compelled to have kids anyway. I think it is good for individuals and for society when people who are passionate and talented in the pursuit of scientific innovation or social justice (or any other endeavor that benefits more than a small set of biological children) feel free to make use of their abilities single-mindedly and without guilt.
If you love what you are doing and work hard at it, then yes, you will enjoy “self-expression, self-cultivation, and self-fulfillment,” Schwartz’s defining features of the expressive individualism that he detests. But maybe you will also contribute to a better society in ways that endure for many generations to come.
This article originally appeared in Bella DePaulo’s Living Single Blog on Psychology Today.