Future of Globalization, Global Pairings

Dining Alone in a Hyper-Competitive World

What can solo dining tell us about the way of life we lead?

Credit: Katherine Lynch www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • The solo life is driven by the break-up of traditional family and communal ties. It comes with greater mobility of labor and higher incomes.
  • The increasing commodification of our lives means that much of our personal space and private actions have become potential money-makers.
  • Being alone provides a welcome relaxation from the pressure to perform and to project an image required by our public or business lives.
  • The average size of household has been going down. The richer the country, the smaller the household size.

I have recently read that New York is the city with the highest ratio of seats that cater to solo diners compared to the total number of restaurant seats. By my own observation, I do not think that statistic is an accident. The number of smaller tables has been going up over the last few years.

What are the advantages of solo dining? There are some obvious ones: You can decide when and where you want to eat. You do not have to worry about how the bill will be split. You can stay as long as you feel like.

There are also some pronounced negative advantages: You do not have to put up with boring dinner companions. Nor do you have to pretend that you are interested in topics you do not care about.

When you dine alone, you also become more aware of your surroundings. In our daily lives, we are usually far too busy even to notice other people.

When you dine alone, you often have nothing else to do but to look at people around you. Unless you wall yourself in completely, you may on occasion have no other choice than to listen to their conversations. That way, you learn about job complaints, life plans, political opinions and love troubles of the strangers around you.

What can solo dining tell us about the way of life we lead? The solo life is, I think (rather unoriginally), driven by the break-up of traditional family and communal ties. It comes with greater mobility of labor; it is enabled by higher incomes.

Hyper-competitiveness and eating

What is not appreciated, I think, is that is driven also by hyper-competitiveness and increasing commodification of our lives.

Hyper-competitiveness is demanding in terms of time and effort. As we compete against more people, not only does this take a toll on our time, but we become more aware that every action, every word, every comment may turn out to be important. We feel the need to be measured and controlled — lest something will be used against us.

Being alone provides a welcome relaxation from the pressure to perform and to project an image required by our public or business lives.

The increasing commodification of our lives means that much of our personal space and private actions have become potential money-makers.

Birthday parties, reunion dinners, theaters are occasions to meet people who may turn out to be useful and to “network.”. (Museums openly advertise vernissages as occasions to network).

Being alone provides a respite from such incessant commodification. You do not network with yourself.

A life alone

Is the life where we “bowl alone,” dine alone, exercise alone, go to concerts alone, live alone our ultimate objective (or at least destination)? If one looks at the numbers, that seems to be the case.

The average size of household has been going down. It also increases with higher income. Not only do richer countries have lower (or negative) population growth rates, but the richer the country the smaller the household size.

If the trend continues, our final destination will be to live in a world where each household is composed of one person. Denmark, Norway and Germany are almost there: The average household size is 2.2 (by comparison, Senegal and Mali have the average household size of 9.1 and 9.5).

Remember Japan

Japan offers a vision of a society of ultra-competitiveness combined with loneliness.

We should not be surprised by such an outcome. Being together with others always had an economic angle: Expenses were less, on a per capita basis, when shared. We needed children to help us in the old age and spouses to pay our bills.

But with higher incomes and higher labor participation rates, we can afford expensive utility bills, we can provide for our old age and a comfortable old-age home (so broadly advertised today).

And our children (if we have any)? They will be too far away, cast around by the availability of jobs and hyper-competitiveness to take care of us.

Being alone appears to be both our preference and a response to a world of competitiveness, commodification and higher incomes.

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About Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic is the Presidential Professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and Senior Scholar at Luxembourg Income Survey.

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