The Hidden Costs of Living Alone
In ways both large and small, American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people.By Joe Pinsker
OCTOBER 20, 2021SHARE
If you were to look under the roofs of American homes at random, it wouldn’t take long to find someone who lives alone. By the Census Bureau’s latest count, there are about 36 million solo dwellers, and together they make up 28 percent of U.S. households.
Even though this percentage has been climbing steadily for decades, these people are still living in a society that is tilted against them. In the domains of work, housing, shopping, and health care, much of American life is a little—and in some cases, a lot—easier if you have a partner or live with family members or housemates. The number of people who are inconvenienced by that fact grows every year.
Those who live alone, to be clear, are not lonely and miserable. Research indicates that, young or old, single people are more social than their partnered peers. Bella DePaulo, the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, reeled off to me some of the pleasures of having your own space: “the privacy, the freedom to arrange your life and your space just the way you want it—you get to decide when to sleep, when to get up, what you eat, when you eat, what you watch on Netflix, how you set the thermostat.”
The difficulties of living alone tend to lie more on a societal level, outside the realm of personal decision making. For one thing, having a partner makes big and small expenditures much more affordable, whether it’s a down payment on a house, rent, day care, utility bills, or other overhead costs of daily life. One recent study estimated that, for a couple, living separately is about 28 percent more expensive than living together.
These efficiencies are an inherent feature of sharing costs with other people, but the barriers to living alone, for those who want to, would be much lower if housing (and health care, and education) weren’t so expensive. Moreover, the types of housing that are most commonly available for one person typically privilege privacy over togetherness, but the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. DePaulo has studied communities where single residents have their own spaces, but also plentiful shared areas with “the possibility of running into other people.” If you need to, say, move heavy furniture or get a ride somewhere in an emergency, your neighbors are easy to reach. More such options would make solo life easier.
Many who live by themselves are effectively penalized at work too. “Lots of people I interviewed complained that their managers presumed they had extra time to stay at the office or take on extra projects because they don’t have family at home,” Eric Klinenberg, the author of the 2012 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone and a sociologist at NYU, told me. “Some said that they were not compensated fairly either, because managers gave raises to people based on the impression that they had more expenses, for child care and so on.”
And if many workers who live alone end up making less money, as consumers they face less favorable pricing options than other shoppers. Buying larger quantities of food at the grocery store is usually cheaper, but as DePaulo pointed out, people who live alone might not get through perishable items quickly enough. (She wishes more stores would let people buy only as much of something as they please, instead of locking them into certain packaging sizes.) Even when a consumer good such as paper towels can’t spoil, people with a small home might not have the space for a stockpile.
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The bias against solo consumers runs deep: Recipes are rarely written for a single diner, and DePaulo said that she has heard from single people who have had trouble booking restaurant reservations for one. Also, some aspects of travel, particularly lodging, are much more expensive, per person, for single people. These all may seem like small annoyances, but in practice they are regular reminders that American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people.
More concerning, some health-care protocols are essentially built on the assumption that a patient lives with someone who can support them. Certain medical procedures require patients to be dropped off or taken home by someone who could stay with them. A friend can fill this role for people who live alone, but they may not want to make a burdensome request or share sensitive information about their health. In the Facebook group that DePaulo created for single people, some members have reported paying a driver from a ride-hailing service extra to pose as a friend or just forgoing a procedure entirely.
And people who live alone don’t always get to take full advantage of government policies. For instance, the Family and Medical Leave Act, a (fairly meager) law that protects some workers’ jobs if they take unpaid leave to look after a loved one, covers care only for spouses, children, and parents. A person who lives alone and doesn’t have a spouse might want to look after a sibling or close friend, but the law doesn’t cover that.
According to the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who aren’t married and don’t live with a romantic partner has also been growing, having jumped from 29 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2019. Many of these people live with others, such as their parents or other relatives, and some of these disadvantages apply to this group as well, depending on whom they share a home with. They may not be able to get a ride to the doctor from a homebound older relative, or may get treated differently at work if they don’t have a child. Some of them might want to live alone, but can’t afford to do so.
And many single people, whether they live alone or with others, constantly face the stigma associated with not being partnered. “It’s oppressive, always getting pitied,” DePaulo said. “People have bought into the ideology that having someone is better—[that] the more natural, normal, superior way of being is being coupled or having a family.”
She sees this norm in the political rhetoric around virtuous, “hardworking families,” and thinks that this cultural default can to some extent be blamed for the ways in which American society has been slow to adapt to people who are single or live alone. She also attributes the slowness to “cultural lag”: In the future, lots of Americans are going to live alone—tens of millions already do—and eventually, society will, with hope, catch up.Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and relationships.