The Excesses of Individualism

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March/April 2012
March 9th, 2012

In his new book, Going Solo, sociologist Eric Klinenberg ’93 documents the growing trend for people to live alone, at least temporarily. Here he discusses why people are choosing solitude and why we should, and should not, be concerned.

BAM In Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam warned that excessive individualism is eroding America’s community life. Do you agree?

EK The language we have developed to talk about issues like this is a weakened, inadequate language for our experience. This is especially true of social scientists, who worry about the loss of community and the decline of social capital and the excesses of individualism. I think they have pushed too hard. Too much of our public discourse is nostalgic and comes across as a lament.

BAM So you see this shift as positive?

EK People are living in interesting ways today. I’m certainly not glib about this issue, though. I’m trying to identify what we should be concerned about and what we should appreciate and admire about this change. When we use this fuzzy nostalgic rhetoric about the end of community and the loss of connections, it distracts our attention from the people for whom living alone is a real problem.

BAM Whom should we be worrying about?

EK Unfortunately older men tend to get more isolated. Men are much less likely to age alone, but far more likely to die alone.

BAM What does this mean for kids?

EK Today most middle class Americans expect that their children will have their own private rooms, and private rooms are becoming expected all over the world wherever there’s affluence. The experience of childhood has become far more private than it ever was. The enormous burden of homework has played a part.

BAM This sounds like coddling.

EK Sociological studies have shown how contemporary families tend to organize themselves around each individual child. Each child’s schedule is accommodated. Children don’t play the same sports; they don’t play all together in the neighborhoods. Every individual child is catered to. So children are being raised to feel more comfortable alone.

BAM Is this good or bad for our kids?

EK It can be a good or a bad thing. The reality is that they’ll live alone as adults, and in that sense they’ll be better prepared. The danger is that tips over into an incapacity to share space and develop intimacy. You can be excessively individualistic. It can happen.

BAM What about the role of sites, like Facebook, that allow us to be friends with people we never see?

EK We are over-connected, too caught up in the chatter of social media and the latest news online. The challenge today is to find ways to regain our solitude and establish deeper connections. What matters is not whether you have 3,000 Facebook friends but whether you have a small circle of friends on whom you can depend. And it doesn’t matter whether you do that with roommates or you live alone.

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March/April 2012