Flying solo

More Americans than ever are working, traveling and living on their own

November 26, 2010|By Andrew L. Yarrow

I looked around the airplane cabin the other day and started thinking: How is this planeload of people different from the passenger profile when I was a child? Sure, the passengers are more diverse, thanks to the deregulation and democratization of air travel. A more subtle change is the increase in nonbusiness passengers flying alone.

I remember families — parents and kids — flying together on vacation or to visit extended family. Today, other than the baby screaming behind me, most passengers who are not headed somewhere for business are young and middle-aged people flying solo. One might ask: What's so strange or noteworthy about that? But the very question suggests how our changed demographic and sociological complexion has become second nature to us.

More than four decades ago, the Beatles sang, "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" But this isn't precisely a matter of loneliness. Most people have ties of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and others. Yet, in the business of our everyday lives, more and more we have become solo practitioners. We watch television or sit at our computers alone. We go grocery shopping and exercise and eat alone. And, yes — even if we're traveling to meet friends or family — we fly alone.

This is one of many all-but-invisible signs that more and more of us spend more and more of our lives living alone. Despite a recession that has driven more adult children under their parents' roofs, the average household size in the United States has been declining for a generation and a half. It's hardly news that more Americans than ever are single, divorced or widowed — 106 million Americans (although remarriages somewhat reduce the numbers of those on their own). That's almost 50 percent of the 18-and-older population (compared with just 28 percent in 1960), according to the Census Bureau. Nor is it news that in most cases both members of a couple work, and often work different hours and longer hours than in generations past. So, even when some of us are not flying solo, we are ships that pass in the night.

Normative behavior — how we actually live — has a funny way of becoming prescriptive behavior —how we should live (as well as the more obvious converse). The advertisements of recent decades show us trim and alone on an exercise bike in the gym; self-help books instruct us to find inner peace; business schools exhort us to be entrepreneurs or workers ready to put individual opportunity ahead of collaborating with co-workers or staying with the same employer.

Many people have decried the decline of the family, and I echo those cries. By describing one jet's passengers, I point to one of countless small ways in which we go about our lives without the accompaniment and support of families.

Does it matter, or is that really so bad, one may legitimately ask? Isn't freedom to do what one wants, when one wants, free of the constraints of family, one of the things that makes modern America freer than it was in the past or than other societies today?

Perhaps, but when does one cross the line between being free and untethered, on the one hand, and being untethered and disconnected, on the other?

There's not an obvious, or easy, policy argument that follows. Family-promotion policies, such as European subsidies for couples to have more children, are all well and good until you're one of those on the short end of the stick, not having children for whatever reason. Marriage-promotion policies (and weak tax incentives and secondary school "health" classes don't really count) are also vaguely laudable, except when you've just fled an abusive relationship, or you're gay and aren't allowed to marry, or you are eager to find a partner but have the demographic odds stacked against you.

Perhaps, what we need to do is more subtle and untried. We should do a much better job depicting what life is like today, single and married. We need to make more explicit the pros and cons of living lives where we do a thousand little things like flying on an airplane either alone or, alternatively, with partners and family members. The same goes for being a lone-ranger entrepreneur or a stake-in-the-ground politician, elevating one's own ideas above those that could be forged in partnership or consensus. One is not better than the other in every way. But, in media and advertising, in social studies classes and in public discourse, we can make these choices more explicit.

I believe that promoting families is a good thing, and popular culture extolling extreme individualism, singleness and other forms of "flying solo" is often vacuous. But I also don't like hearing empty, sanctimonious rhetoric about "family values." Let's present the arguments in everyday terms that people can understand and feel.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a public-policy professional, modern U.S. historian and longtime journalist, is the author of the new book, "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is andrewyarrowcolumns@gmail.com.

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