What I'm Reading: Going Solo // Eric Klinenberg

Non-Fiction | Kindle

I've read/listened to some 180+ books since writing my last book review, but as I've also been traveling for work or preparing to travel somewhere during much of that time, needless to say there's no way I could keep up with reviewing them all. Since I've had a several people comment lately that they wish I'd share more of my reading, here's a random post, and it's a wordy one, poorly edited. Better done than perfect, right? More to come, if there's time.

Why I chose this book

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone piqued my curiosity due to the fact that I live alone, as do the majority of unmarried foreign residents in my social circle in Taiwan. Likewise, back in the US, most acquaintances of my generation have experienced solo living at some point between high school and marriage. Contrast that with my acquaintances in Taiwan, many of whom have never lived alone, often going from living with their parents directly to living with a spouse, perhaps sharing an apartment with roommates briefly in between.

What it's about

Going Solo examines the causes for the rise in solo living, primarily in the west, as well as how society has adapted to this modern way of living. To be clear, this book is not purely about people who actively choose to remain unmarried their whole lives (though this particular segment of singletons is growing). It is also about people who are single due to the death of a spouse, divorce, or just being unlucky in the romance department. Regardless of the reasons people live alone, the problem remains that our cities, laws, and social structures are optimized for married couples with children, and these need to evolve in order to maintain the quality of life of people who are on their own.

I won’t summarize the book, but will hit on three areas it caused me to think more deeply about, whether explicitly mentioned in the book or due to my own extrapolation:

Takeaway #1: Societies that try to discourage singledom do so at their own peril

While Going Solo mostly talks about western societies, I live in a country that looks nothing like those described in the book. Here in Taiwan, falling birth rates have been making headlines since before I arrived in 2005, and the government has attempted to prevent a reversal in population growth largely through financial incentives for married couples. More recently, it appears that some folks have started to realize it may be easier to bring in adult professionals than to “create” future adults (babies!), so making Taiwan more open and international has become a new priority. I’m a strong proponent of internationalization, of course, but what about that birth rate crisis?

To be clear, wage stagnation and the rising cost of living in cities are major factors in why young people are delaying marriage and having fewer children. But the continued emphasis on maintaining the outdated notion of the “nuclear family” is also to blame. In a society where only married women can receive IVF treatments (though single women can freeze their eggs), artificial insemination is not legal for single women, and gay couples may not adopt or engage surrogate mothers, the law actively discourages conception and child-rearing by any type of family unit besides that of heterosexual married couples. 

Though women in Taiwan are marrying later and seeing their earnings rise, those who, either by choice or by circumstance, do not marry but still have the means and desire to have children, cannot do so without facing legal or logistical obstacles. Thus, choosing singledom is often by default choosing childlessness. Removing legal obstacles for single people (and gay couples) to choose parenthood would not singlehandedly fix the birth rate problem, but it would bring the law in line with evolving societal views on what qualifies as a “family unit” and make parenthood more accessible to single people who would love to have children if only there were legal, local options.

Takeaway #2: Technology isn't really all that isolating

The book briefly touches on this topic, specifically with regards to studies that imply increased time spent online is a problem while ignoring the fact that much of the online world is inherently social. The argument some people make against solo living is that the internet is no substitute for face to face interaction.

Those who live alone don’t necessarily feel isolated, even if their social lives aren’t quite the kind of “social” we’d have recognized 20 years ago. We stopped calling people when chat programs like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger became easier ways to get in touch. We mostly stopped handwriting letters when we became capable of instantaneously reaching others through email. And though I wasn’t alive back then, I can only assume that dropping in to visit people decreased as more and more people installed telephones in their homes. 

Every era has its own ideas of what it means to be social, and the mature generations of each era have surely decried the latest technologies that threatened the contemporary social norms. Yet, it’s doubtful that anyone would prefer to go back to the days of stopping in to see friends and needing to leave a calling card after discerning that no one is home. Nor would we be better off in a world where we couldn’t connect with people of other cultures and backgrounds easily, or turn weak connections into strong ones through regular online interaction.

That said, of course the internet has played a large part in the seeming loss of humanity among younger generations who’ve grown up never knowing a world without it. Trolling and online bullying are easier to engage in when we can hide behind our screens. But it’s important to note that the trolls and online bullies who have turned their verbal threats into physical violence in the real world have often been people living in multi-person households, often with their parents. Thus, living with other people doesn’t necessarily make us less isolated or more socially connected, just as living alone doesn’t equate to social isolation and loneliness.

Takeaway #3: Where governments aren’t helping, tech companies fill the gaps

As I mentioned, I live alone, and one of the greatest things about solo living in this decade is the abundance of tools that make life easier when you don’t have others in your household to share the load. Living alone means you’re responsible for all the cooking, shopping, cleaning, bill-paying, and every other thing that keeps you clean and healthy, and this can be a burden when you have a busy career and/or social life. Of course, shopping or doing laundry for one person is easier than it is for four, but when you cannot delegate a single household task, it can be tough to keep up.

Luckily, we live in an era with an abundance of apps serving people who live alone, especially for those of us who live in cities. I do wish there were as many options in Taipei as there are in other places like New York or Singapore, but here are some services (with apps) that help me to outsource things I don’t have the time for:

  • HonestBee: restaurant & grocery delivery, including deliveries from Costco, Carrefour, and specialty shops
  • KumaWash: laundry service, with pickup and dropoff in 24 hours
  • UberEats: restaurant delivery — a lifesaver for me when I don’t have spare time to pack lunches for work
  • PChome & momo: household goods delivered in 24 hours, with 6-hour delivery in Taipei by PChome

(One other thing -- HonestBee briefly did on-demand garbage pickup, which is a lifesaver in Taipei when your nearest trash pickups are at 5pm and 10:05pm and you're a working professional who lives alone, goes home late, and likes to be in bed by 10pm. Still waiting for another company to fill the gap!)

There's still a lot of opportunity going forward for tech companies that serve the needs of people who live alone, whether those people are young professionals, the elderly, or people with mobility issues. Going Solo didn't touch on this nearly as much as it could have, but regardless, I'd recommend aspiring startup founders and existing companies to read this book and keep solo dwellers in mind when developing new features or products.