When I taught a psychology course on singles in America at the University of Virginia in 1999, one of the assignments was: Go out to dinner alone. One of my students waited patiently as the hostess seated one party after another; the hostess thought my student was waiting for someone else, so she ignored her. Another student got dressed up and headed to an upscale restaurant with several dining rooms. She was ushered into a room with no other diners.
Today, things would be different. Recently, the online restaurant reservation service OpenTable reported that, over the past two years, the fastest-growing party size has been tables for one; one-person reservations have increased 62 percent. Diners are not going to restaurants alone just by chance — they are committing to it ahead of time.
Solo travel has also increased. In a 2015 survey from Visa, 24 percent said that the last time they traveled overseas for fun, they went alone. Two years before, that number was just 15 percent. When respondents to another survey were asked whether they would take a vacation on their own if they had the opportunity, 40 percent said yes.
A confluence of changes in demographics, business practices and technology have contributed to the embrace of solo experiences. But the most significant is the rise of people who live alone — now about one in seven adults.
If more Americans are used to living alone, going out alone is no longer such an aberration. In 1999, when my students were being ignored and ushered into empty dining rooms, 26.6 million people in the United States lived alone. Now it is nearly 35 million.
If you were to travel around the country knocking on doors at random, you would more often find a person living alone than a family of a mom, dad and kids. Having a place of your own is more likely to convey cachet than loneliness. Many young people believe that when they can afford to live alone for the first time, they have officially crossed the threshold into adulthood. For older people, having the financial wherewithal to live alone is their ticket to a more dignified and joyful life than being in an institution. So appealing is a place of one’s own that a substantial number of committed couples – including even married ones – are living apart because they like it that way.
Over the past half a century or so, even children have gotten a taste of what it’s like to have their own space. Rather than sharing a room with siblings, kids whose parents can afford it have their own rooms. And it is not just in the “Home Alone” movies that kids have the whole place to themselves. As more mothers entered the workforce, and as the number of single-parent households increased, the ranks of latchkey kids really started to grow. By 1998, more than 8 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 were spending time on their own with no adults around.
The kids let themselves into their empty homes, do their homework, entertain themselves and prepare their own snacks – good practice for living alone later on. Many of these children grew fond of their autonomy and their space. Living with a roommate was once the iconic college experience; now universities are inundated with requests for private rooms. At Montclair State University, for example, about 15 percent of freshmen living on campus have private rooms. Harvard University has been renovating its residential houses, with an emphasis on increasing the number of single rooms. And at the University of Pennsylvania, just about every student who requests a private room can get one.
The rise in the number of people living alone adds to the number of people potentially interested in dining alone or traveling alone: Solo dwellers get practice being alone privately before doing it publicly.
But savoring your solitude in a place of your own, outside of the public gaze, is different from venturing out where everyone can see you. Business owners have noticed the rise of solo customers, and are now catering to them — creating the kinds of venues and experiences those customers crave. For example, at the Founding Farmers restaurants in the Washington area, solo diners are sometimes offered free cocktails and appetizers. Hosts are trained to be sensitive to whether these guests might want to chat. Some restaurants offer tables for one in prime locations (no more being hidden in the back, next to the swinging kitchen doors), as well as alternatives such as bar seating or communal tables.
Back when I was teaching that class on singles, I would ask students if they ever went out to dinner alone, and if not, why. Some insisted that they weren’t deterred by self-consciousness but by the more mundane concern that they’d be bored. Well, that’s no longer the case.
Our ubiquitous devices offer endless entertainment and constant virtual companionship. We can browse websites, play Candy Crush, read books, text or tweet at our friends. Then, once our food arrives, instead of downing it as fast as possible and dashing out the door, we pause, take a picture and post it on Instagram for all the world to see.
It’s easier to be alone because we never really are.