Posted 7 months ago on Oct. 3, 2012, 6:28 p.m. EST by PeterKropotkin
from Oakland, CA
This content is user submitted and not an official statement
By Harriet Fraad
Tectonic shifts are changes in the very foundations of the earth. The books I review illustrate these shifts in the ways that Americans manage their personal lives: how we live day to day, with whom we live and what kinds of relationships we have.
Three recent widely-acclaimed books track changes in America's personal life. They are "Going Solo," (Eric Klinenberg, New York: The Penguin Press, 2012); "The Outsourced Self," (Arlie Russell Hochschild, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012); and "Coming Apart," (Charles Murray, New York: Crown Forum-Random House, 2012). None of the three describe the duet danced between the changes they astutely observe and the new US economy and political power structure. I will try to do that here.
"Going Solo" describes the meteoric rise of people choosing to live alone. Today - for the first time since the census began counting in 1880 - more than half of American adults are single. They are tied with childless couples for the distinction of being the most predominant residential type, more numerous than nuclear families with children, multigenerational families, roommate homes or group homes. Manhattan alone is home to a million people whom Klinenberg calls "singletons," living alone in one-person dwellings. Manhattan is typical of US and European cities. The people living solo are not all old widows and widowers. For the first time in recorded US history, the majority of people that the census refers to as of "prime marriageable age" – 18 to 34 years old - are unmarried and live alone. For younger Americans this does not feel like a radical change. For older Americans it is a sea change.
Klinenberg is enthusiastic about this development. He mentions, but does not focus on, its wildly different outcomes for people who do and do not have money. For the affluent top 20 percent, living solo can be a refuge. For the employed professional, it can deliver respite from the constant demands of stressful work lives. It is now common knowledge that the 8-hour day is lost in America and folks need to escape from employers.
Cell phones and job precarity make workers available at all hours. Wealthy "singletons" can work until late at night and then go to bars or restaurants with their fellow workers and spend money and time decompressing before they return to the peace of their single dwellings. On weekends, when they have discretionary time, they can entertain themselves through their personal computers or with the thousands of opportunities a city can provide for those who can pay. Older, affluent solo dwellers who are either employed or retired can go to the theater or expensive films, dinners out, etc.
If they are at home, social media on their computers can keep them somewhat connected. In short, they can connect on their own schedules in ways that having money facilitates. If they are old and infirm and in the 10 percent to 20 percent of privileged Americans, they can hire caretakers who accompany them and make socializing and cultural events possible. They can stay more connected on their own terms.
Not so with the 80 percent of youth who also work - or try to work - long hours. They cannot afford to go out and spend money and often cannot afford computers. Younger people can find each other and hang out in less safe environments where the police may bother them for loitering. Elderly poor singletons are often stuck in isolating and dangerous single-room-occupancy hotels. They often live in poor and dangerous neighborhoods where they cannot feel safe enough to sit outside or go to a local park if there is one. They cannot afford computers or lessons in how to use them. Lines for computer access at the public library are long and library hours are cut. If seniors are in the 80 percent who cannot afford sufficient paid care, and do not have devoted local children, friends or relatives, they are isolated and often depressed. This is the poor neglected side of US single life, or death as the case may be. Why is This Tectonic Shift Happening Now? A Question Untouched in "Going Solo"
Part of the glue that held relationships together in the past was a strict division of gender roles. Closely related was the segregation of employment opportunities. Another part was the unavailability of reliable, safe birth control and abortion, which left many women and children dependent on the male wage. Family wages were almost always unavailable for women and minority men. Their lives were considerably harder. Full or high employment in a scarce labor market reserved for white men included financial rewards for being white and being male. That began to change in the 1970s. Advanced international communications systems, computer technology and weak unions allowed corporate outsourcing to export US jobs. Jobs at home shifted to social service jobs which are harder to outsource. Social service jobs are lower paid and tend to be female jobs. At the same time, women and minority rights movements expanded their labor opportunities. Capitalists no longer had to give white men wage supplements for jobs reserved for them. Capitalists replaced white men with both low wage people from Third World nations and cheaper minority and female labor in the US.
Without their family wages, white men could no longer support their wives' full time labor as dependent household servants, sex mates and child-care providers. Families needed more money. Millions of white women joined their minority sisters in the labor force. Some were driven by their own wish for fulfillment. Most were driven by economic necessity. With women's changed position as wage-earners, the economic backbone of gender-segregated families began to break. The 1970s also brought the advent of the LGBTQ movement which has contributed to changes in gender stereotypes. LGBTQ relationships have their own dynamics. Gender role stereotypes have not been as rigid and limiting in LGBTQ relationships as they were, and often are, in heterosexual relationships.
LGBTQ relationships have been both benefitted and also injured by a society in which they were not given the legitimacy accorded straight relationships. On the one hand this has made it harder for LGBTQ couples to sustain long-term relationships. On the other hand, LGBTQ long-term couples tend to be happier in their relationships. In the 1970s and thereafter, LGBTQ, feminist and civil rights ideology permeated the society and entered American homes. Women claimed more autonomy and respect. However, heterosexual couples and families did not often develop collective communal styles of relationships to match their shared roles at work. Housework and childcare were and are still overwhelmingly performed by women in hetero families. Old-style hetero relationships consist of a now impossible level of male responsibility, an unshared financial burden and male dominance combined with an equally impossible burden of female housework, combined with childcare, and jobs outside of the home. Women had a liberation movement to help us escape from our limited lives in household labor and it is women who have dramatically reversed our role and rejected marriage.
Men did and do not have a movement to help them appreciate the new intimacy possible in egalitarian couple relationships. Traditional men often expect their wives to fulfill traditional roles and also to work outside the home. Many men demand extra emotional labor to soothe male egos wounded by lost financial dominance. Former hierarchical models of relationships are broken, and new communal models are less available, especially for blue collar heterosexual men who are the hardest hit by our changed economy. There are no measures for communal relationships. However, there is a statistical record of men opting out of shared household labor and childcare.
Living alone may seem preferable to struggles that neither partner in the relationship can understand, let alone resolve. The same kind of communal sharing and mutually empowering economic, intellectual, social and economic equality that Left movements advocated for the economy are needed in the home, where they are unavailable. Living alone looks more desirable than struggling together to achieve what neither understands. This too is relevant to the mass movement of "going solo."
There is an additional factor. Many young people cannot find mates. US society has become increasingly isolated. Putnam documents the incredible isolation of current US society. , The difficulty of finding a partner is such a fact of US life, that two new sitcoms on the subject, "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate" will appear this fall on Fox TV
Although many young people look for partners on the Internet, the Internet serves to conceal as well as reveal those who advertise themselves, and many find it painfully inadequate. Between the difficulties in meeting a partner and the confusion and pain of changed gender expectations, many remain single.