By Bryna Taubman
Better to live alone; with a fool there is no companionship.’ The Pali Canon (sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhists), c. 500-250 B.C.
Americans are marrying less, divorcing more, and forming households of one at a great rate. Yet it’s pairs and families who dominate the popular and political culture, keeping the huge population of live-alones off the screen of our national vision. “Politicians talk incessantly about families and ‘family values,'” notes a black woman, 42, who lives alone. “Aren’t I a citizen, too?”
More than 24 million Americans—one out of four adults— live alone. Over 15 million of them are women (who comprise 75% of all people over 45 who live alone). Individuals move in and out of the single population as couples are formed and broken, as children are born, grow up, and move out, and as mates die. But the percentage of single American households keeps increasing.
Negative stereotypes of the person living alone persist, especially where women are concerned: the elderly widow, divorcee, or empty-nesting single mom, pining away in a large, echoing house or a tiny, cramped apartment. But the truth is—while some people want to change their status, growing numbers are choosing to stay single.
Living Alone and Loving It
“I have no intention of being part of a couple again,” says Nancy Elder, a management consultant in the Midwest. Her feelings are echoed around the country, by men and women who have tried the traditional route and found it didn’t work for them.
“I like living alone. I like not living with someone I don’t want to be living with an incredible amount,” agrees Helen Weingarten who lives in a college town in Michigan.
Actually, everyone contacted for this article claimed they were the wrong person to talk to; they were much too busy to fit the loneliness stereotype.
“When I get to go home alone early, it’s like a gift that I give myself. I get in bed, watch television, pig out, catch up on all the papers and magazines I haven’t read…That’s my gift for the evening,” says Barbara Bode, who administers a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.
Like many singles, Bode has a full social calendar unaffected by her lack of a permanent partner. Many women report that a newly single status reduces invitations from married friends, but most eventually find new connections with those also on their own.
The United States is the first society rich enough to produce enough housing and income to enable so many people to live by themselves. The decision by so many people to live alone has profound implications for the nation as a whole. Single people may need more health services if they are hospitalized for even a minor problem. And as the population ages, it’s probably true that singles will require a group home situation earlier than couples living together, especially if they are hit with a chronic illness.
And the future is not that far off. Although in the movies singles living on their own are usually pictured as twenty something, in real life most of them are 35-plus. They are the ones earning enough money to afford the solitary life. Younger singles usually share with parents, lovers, or friends.
This mostly middle-aged and middle-class group is a new phenomenon, and it is everywhere. In 1993, one-third of all first-time home buyers were single, according to a study done by Chicago Title and Trust. Singles bought homes in the suburbs, condos in urban centers, and vacation houses in resort areas.
Although the popular culture doesn’t seem to notice these statistics much, business is beginning to recognize a market. Think of soups for one and single-serving frozen foods. Much of the growth of health clubs can be attributed to the single person’s need for a place to go after work that doesn’t include drinking. So can the growing number of coffee bars. And the popularity of salad bars suggests a population that can’t use up a head of lettuce before it turns brown.
Can’t Get No Respect Yet, with the exception of some beer and fast-food ads, single adults are left out of the national image. Vacations are advertised for couples or families. Financial planning assumes a pair at least. Car-buying decisions are a family affair. The “family values” debates suggest an assumed amorality from anyone not living with blood relatives.
When singles are portrayed in movies or TV, it is always with the assumption they will end as half of a pair. In real life, many people who reached middle age alone are choosing to stay that way. In this age of AIDS, some have opted for celibacy. Some have found interests beyond the social scene. Others continue to search for romance, but insist it will never again be a live-in relationship.
Lily Rivlin, a New York filmmaker, has started a support group for women who are not only single, but also childless. “If you don’t have children, you don’t count in our society,” she argues. Rivlin and others believe the male-dominated culture is threatened by women who don’t fit the standard mold.
“They don’t know how to deal with us, so we’re just discounted,” she says, pointing out that most men really don’t want an equal partner. Rivlin would like to see singles, particularly women, organize as a political pressure group. That way the women would feel better about themselves and the power structure would have to acknowledge their existence.
“All the icons and archetypes we’re presented with have to do with couples, including gay and lesbian couples. Pairs have more cachet than a single anything,” says Jeff Mortimer, an editor at the University of Michigan who claims to own a button reading: “Stop me before I marry again.”
“The deck is stacked against the single person, especially the single middle-aged person, not just legally and not just economically, but culturally,” Mortimer finds. “The message that comes across is that living alone can’t possibly be something that a person can freely choose, or enjoy.”
I Really Vant to Be Alone Many of those who live alone identified with a retired woman who asked advice columnist Dear Abby for a politely worded refusal for holiday invitations. Friends, neighbors, and former co-workers insisted she spend Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other holidays with their relatives. She preferred to eat alone in a restaurant or practice cooking a gourmet dish for herself to “pretending to have a good time in a house full of strangers.”
Another career woman recalled how liberated she felt when she decided to forego a fish dinner with others attending a meeting in San Francisco. Instead, she took herself to a Greek restaurant on a Saturday night and had a wonderful time on her own.
Privately, as the number of people living alone has mushroomed, attitudes have changed. Fifty years ago, Garbo renounced Hollywood and shocked the world with her desire for solitude. Today, almost everyone has an aunt, uncle, sibling, or parent who lives alone, lessening the believability of stories about weird loners.
“There are a million kind of places you can go as a single person,” insists Helen Weingarten. In larger cities, the choice is even more readily accepted, although some women have complained about the problems of social events associated with work. One woman who hates to ask male friends to be her escort reported that when she shows up alone at such functions, “I have been the absolutely only single person there.”
All Is Not Rosy Even though many of these middle-aged singles live alone by choice, there are problems. Almost everyone mentions the annoyance of everyone assuming that they are part of a pair. As one woman who lives in a town without public transportation pointed out, even taking her car in for repairs can be a hassle. It’s assumed there is a partner to provide transportation until the car is ready. And, she wondered, how can one person hang a curtain rod across a six-foot window?
One person does not live half as cheaply as two. Real estate taxes are the same no matter how many people live in a house. So are maintenance costs. And car repair bills. One person may use a bit less electricity or gas than two, but a woman on her own may have to hire help to do chores and make repairs. Of the 7.6 million single homeowners 65 and over, six million (79%) are women.
Jeff Mortimer cites disadvantages singles face in taxes, insurance, and even getting a loan. He also remembered losing a job to a married man who was much less qualified for the position than he was.
Vacation planning is often mentioned by singles as evidence of their invisibility. One woman decided against a cruise when she learned how much more it would cost for a single cabin. Hotels also charge more for one person. And most packages assume travelers are part of a pair. In larger cities, the demand has produced some travel agencies that specialize in trips for people on their own.
Financial Shock at Retirement Women who have worked all their lives often have their own pension, social security, and IRAs. But they have earned their share in an economy that paid women less than 70 cents for every dollar a man made. Retirement plans for couples may include two pensions and two government checks, but the retired single makes do with one of each, often calculated on a lower base pay. The Older Women’s League’s study shows that minority women are even more likely than whites to be alone and poor as they age.
A study by The Employee Benefit Research Institute in 1993 had even more alarming predictions for women on their own. Three-fourths of the elderly poor are women. Half of the women over 65 are widows. (One happy reason for more older women: According to several studies, men who live alone die at an earlier age than those living with a wife or caregiver, but women who live alone survive longer than their connubial sisters.)
Single mothers and displaced homemakers (women whose primary occupation had been caring for a family and who failed to find fulltime employment after a divorce or death), are four times more likely to be living below the poverty line during their working years. There have been no published studies of how childless singles do in the general economy.
Many singles are aware of the problematic future and are considering some kind of communal arrangement with friends. In Ann Arbor, Michigan a group of single women are thinking about building a house together—each person would have a separate apartment, with a shared communal living room and kitchen. In Washington, D.C., a group of friends are talking about buying themselves a retirement home in Costa Rica. In New York City, a group of single women writers discuss buying a weekly newspaper in New England.
Still, those are individual solutions to a national problem. As more and more singles move into retirement and the possibility of serious illness, the country will have to take notice of them. Perhaps they will begin funding their own political action committees and send lobbyists to Congress. Or the single members of Congress will establish a Singles Caucus.
At the very least, there should be a concerted effort to get the national planning for health insurance, retirement, home care, and other problems to reflect more directly the reality of the American population. Not everyone has live-in caregivers. Not everyone can expect family members to be available for long-term home nursing. Not everyone spends their final years in the warm embrace of a long marriage and loving family. Not everyone has relatives nearby for holiday visits or even basic shopping. Millions of people will be relying on “the kindness of strangers” during the years when they are least able to fend for themselves.
Journalist Bryna Taubman first explored the subject of the singles population in a series for the New York Post in 1969. She is coauthor of How to Fall in Love and Land on Your Feet, due out in Spring by St. Martin’s Press.