So, yeah, Valentine’s Day.
Hearts, flowers, candlelit dinners, whatever.
If all that manufactured schmaltz makes you feel like a loser just because you aren’t partnered up, you’re going to like this.
Despite the ceaseless romancing of the idea of coupled life, and the political focus on families as the building blocks of society and community, Canada’s population of singletons — defined as people who live alone — is arguably the fastest-growing demographic. And it may well be the most crucial — socially, culturally and even economically.
The evidence is literally towering.
All over Toronto, soaring glass warrens of tiny box-like “lofts” are shooting up into the skyline. They create densely populated areas where everybody walks to work in the morning and stops by the new supermarket on the way home for a freshly made, single-serving microwaveable meal. Later, these people fill the local gyms and pubs.
Singles are fuelling inner-city growth and keeping the core alive, frequenting the parks and other public spaces with their pets, dining out and attending cultural events, while couples, with or without kids, are in watching TV.
Singletons also contribute to the community through volunteer work; unlike married people, they have the time for it and it is a social network-building opportunity.
So take heart all you singletons, whose V-Day dates will either be with the girls (or boys) over drinks, with Facebook friends or with NBC’s cruelly timed The Biggest Loser and a bowl of popcorn.
You are not alone.
“I think the incredible rise of living alone is the biggest social change that we have failed to name and identify,” says New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, on the phone from Manhattan. “We treat it as a personal matter, like we are the only ones in the world dealing with it. The truth is, it’s now a widely shared condition and we need to understand it and talk about it.”
Klinenberg’s just-published Going Solo: the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone is causing a sensation, both for how it has shaken up our traditional notions of the single life and as a sociological breakthrough. Psychology Today has already described it as “a social science classic.”
“This is the first book on this topic to take it on comprehensively, but it’s clearly not going to be the last one because we’re just coming to terms with what I call this social experiment,” Klinenberg explains. “We have 200,000 years of experience as a species living in domestic groups and we have about 50 or 60 years living alone. So we have a lot to learn.”
While Klinenberg’s research focuses primarily on the U.S., much of what he writes pertains to Canada.
According to the 2006 census, one in four Canadian households are single-person. In Toronto, almost one in three households consisted of people living alone, up 11 per cent from 2001.
And they form clusters.
“People who live alone tend to live better when they live in an area where there are a lot of other singles,” Klinenberg says. “One of the amazing things about contemporary cities is that we can name the neighbourhoods where living alone is a social experience. I don’t know the neighbourhoods of Canada, but in the United States you have Greenwich Village, West Hollywood, Lincoln Park in Chicago . . . these are places where we know people go to live alone together.
“One of my big arguments in the book is that urbanization has made living alone not just possible but also pleasurable.”
The numbers haven’t yet been crunched for the 2011 census, but the 2006 data show that in Toronto, the postal codes covering the Harbourfront highrises, as well as those in the Church-Wellesley and Davisville areas, just to name a few, are single-person household hubs.
When many of these buildings went up, the ’60s had swung the pendulum toward living single. The ’70s “Me Decade” grew into the Me-llennium. And, of course, the divorce and remarriage rate soared, with people moving in and out of the single state from one life stage to the next.
Women, especially, were breaking out, getting careers and gaining independence. Marriage was no longer mandatory and mothering for many fell right off the map.
“A lot of (divorced) women felt that they had neglected themselves for too long,” Klinenberg says of his findings. “They needed to have time for themselves. They wanted intimacy. They wanted to be in relationships. But they didn’t necessarily want to live with the person. They wanted to maintain their autonomy.
“Women are more likely to live alone than men but they are less likely to get isolated and the reason is because women are, on average, much better at establishing relationships and maintaining them.”
Twice-divorced Toronto writer Joanne Ingrassia, 57, is typical. She’s one of many who responded to an informal poll on Facebook.
“I’ve lived alone for the past 18 years,” she notes. “I’ve never let being alone hold me back in any way. I’m very active, community involved and very passionate about music, the arts in general, nature, travel (yes, alone) and more. I love the people in my life and have nurtured good relationships with family and close friends. But would I consider sharing my life and living space with a guy again? My life, yes. My space, quite possibly. I am at least open to the idea of both!”
And then there’s government worker Darlene Tansey, 43, who volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society: “I lived with a man for over 10 years. Gradually, I began to feel like I’d lost myself; I didn’t remember who I was or what I wanted to accomplish in life for me. Since I’ve been living on my own (about seven years now), I bought my own condo in a neighbourhood I love, I vacation in super hot climates and I do volunteer work that I love. I am waaaay more confident — and I can do what I want, when I want, how I want.”
“The stigma of living alone is much less than it used to be,” says Klinenberg. “In 1957, a group of psychologists from the University of Michigan surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward marriage and singleness and they found that 80 per cent of the respondents thought that adults who wanted to be unmarried were either ‘sick,’ ‘neurotic,’ or ‘immoral.’
“Learning that fact cracks us up today because it is so foreign to us and it tells us that our attitudes have changed tremendously. But at the same time the social pressure to couple up remains intense. Many people get uncomfortable around their single friends and family members because they’re independence feels threatening on some level. That’s true even though half of the adults in the U.S. are single. I think we failed to collectively make sense of why this has happened and what it means for us and at the very least I hope that this book sparks a debate.”
And that debate needs to be political, Klinenberg tells us, because it is the senior cohorts and not the young ones who are increasingly living alone.
As StatsCan found with the 2006 census, 63 per cent of those over 65 in the GTA — almost 90,000 people — live alone. Those numbers will go up as baby boomers age and while the Harper government talks of postponing old age security benefits, the need for housing, health care and related services will grow greater.
“You can make the case that the needs of people who live alone and single people have not been served by political parties and the issues that matter to single people have not been championed the way they should be given the size of the population,” warns Klinenberg.
This, he maintains, “will be a real challenge” in the years ahead — and we don’t seem to be prepared for it.
Meanwhile, governments, media and Valentine’s Day card-makers ignore singletons at all our peril.
“I am not advocating for living alone,” insists Klinenberg, “but I am concerned that we fail to understand why so many people have made this decision and collectively have failed to remove the stigma of living alone — and we can be so judgmental. And our judgments are alienating for about half of the adult population.”
Happy Valentine’s Day all you singletons.
You deserve the love.