The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness.
Americans are suffering from a bad case of loneliness. The number of people in the United States living alone has gone through the studio-apartment roof. A study released by the insurance company Cigna last spring made headlines with its announcement: “Only around half of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.” Loneliness, public-health experts tell us, is killing as many people as obesity and smoking. It’s not much comfort that Americans are not, well, alone in this. Germans are lonely, the bon vivant French are lonely, and even the Scandinavians—the happiest people in the world, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report—are lonely, too. British prime minister Theresa May recently appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.”
The hard evidence for a loneliness epidemic admittedly has some issues. How is loneliness different from depression? How much do living alone and loneliness overlap? Do social scientists know how to compare today’s misery with that in, say, the mid-twentieth century, a period that produced prominent books like The Lonely Crowd? Certainly, some voguish explanations for the crisis should raise skepticism: among the recent suspects are favorite villains like social media, technology, discrimination, genetic bad luck, and neoliberalism.
Still, the loneliness thesis taps into a widespread intuition of something true and real and grave. Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of “deaths of despair” suggest a profound, collective discontent. It’s worth mapping out one major cause that is simultaneously so obvious and so uncomfortable that loneliness observers tend to mention it only in passing. I’m talking, of course, about family breakdown. At this point, the consequences of family volatility are an evergreen topic when it comes to children; this remains the subject of countless papers and conferences. Now, we should take account of how deeply the changes in family life of the past 50-odd years are intertwined with the flagging well-being of so many adults and communities.
Scholars sometimes refer to the domestic earthquake that first rumbled through wealthy countries like the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century as the Second Demographic Transition. (The first transition occurred around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as the high death and birth rates that had been humanity’s default condition since the Neanderthals declined dramatically, leading to rapid population growth.) Mostly associated with the Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe, the SDT (the unfortunately evocative acronym) is a useful framework for understanding the dramatic rupture between the Ozzie and Harriet and Sex and the City eras.
The SDT began emerging in the West after World War II. As societies became richer and goods cheaper and more plentiful, people no longer had to rely on traditional families to afford basic needs like food and shelter. They could look up the Maslovian ladder toward “post-material” goods: self-fulfillment, exotic and erotic experiences, expressive work, education. Values changed to facilitate these goals. People in wealthy countries became more antiauthoritarian, more critical of traditional rules and roles, and more dedicated to individual expression and choice. With the help of the birth-control pill, “non-conventional household formation” (divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, and single parenthood) went from uncommon—for some, even shameful—to mundane. Lesthaeghe predicted that low fertility would also be part of the SDT package, as families grew less central. And low fertility, he suggested, would have thorny repercussions for nation-states: he was one of the first to guess that developed countries would turn to immigrants to restock their aging populations, as native-born young adults found more fulfilling things to do than clean up after babies or cook dinner for sullen adolescents.
The disruption of family life caused by the SDT in the U.S. has been rehearsed thousands of times, including by this writer, but the numbers still startle. In 1950, 20 percent of marriages ended in divorce; today, it’s approximately 40 percent. Four in ten American children are now born to unmarried mothers, up from about 5 percent in 1960. In 1970, 84 percent of U.S. children spent their entire childhoods living with both bio-parents. Today, only half can expect to do the same.
Lesthaeghe was prophetic about what would happen to fertility in wealthy countries. In the U.S., the percentage of childless women doubled between 1970 and the mid-2000s; today, 14 percent of U.S. women past their childbearing years have never given birth. That actually makes us more fertile than some other developed countries. In Germany, nearly a quarter of women end up childless. The U.S. number might more closely resemble the German figure if it weren’t for our high levels of immigration, most of it from poor countries that haven’t yet embraced the change in attitudes. In 2015, in six U.S. states, more than 30 percent of births were to foreign-born women.
Postwar baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were Generation Zero for the Second Demographic Transition in the United States. Now shuffling their way into their sixties and seventies, older boomers give a glimpse of the long-term downside of the post-SDT culture. If we had to pick just one word to describe it, “lonely” would do. In widely quoted research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis uncovered a recent surge in the number of “kinless” older adults. Lower fertility translates into fewer siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, whether for hospital visits or emergency contacts.
A jump in the number of never-married and divorced adults is also part of the kinlessness story. Boomers were the first generation to divorce in large numbers, and they continue to split up even as they amble into their golden years, giving rise to the phenomenon known as “gray divorce.” The divorce rate has doubled for people over 50 since 1990. In 2017 Senate testimony, Robert Putnam, author of the 2000 milestone Bowling Alone and the national prophet of social-capital decline, cautioned that for all these reasons, boomers will face a more lonesome old age than their Greatest Generation parents. “[R]oughly 12 percent fewer of the mid-boomer birth cohort of 1955 will be living with spouses when they reach age 65 than was true of the birth cohort of 1930,” he observed. Those boomers will also have 36 percent fewer children than the earlier cohort.
Divorce has frayed ties between boomers and the children that they do have. Divorced fathers tend to stay close to their children in the months and years immediately following separation, but for various reasons they often drift away over time. And the younger the child at the time of the breakup, the less likely it is that fathers will continue to be involved. “Waiting till the kids have moved out,” as the gray-divorce boomlet suggests that lots of couples are doing, is not as strong protection from a kin deficit as one might expect. Gray divorce damages parents’ relationships with their adult children, too.
Divorce didn’t turn boomers off to marriage entirely; a substantial number plunged in again. But instead of replacing defunct relationships, remarriage further fragmented family ties. For one thing, when parents remarry, it often brings jealousies, bad chemistry, and resentments into their relationships with their children. That’s especially true when a parent starts a second family with a new spouse. Given the overscheduling of contemporary childhood, not to mention the emotions provoked by ex-spouses, it’s inevitable that fathers who remarry or whose ex-wives remarry become an afterthought to, or an irritating intrusion into, their children’s daily family routines.
The other reason remarriage frequently fails to replenish kin networks is that second marriages are even more likely to break up than first—and third unions are flimsier still. Divorced people generally can’t count on ex-wives or husbands to provide much companionship or support when they have a heart attack or a close friend dies. Studies also show—unsurprisingly—that stepchildren don’t care for needy stepparents as much as they do their biological parents; that’s especially true in gray remarriages, when kids are likely to be older when a stepparent enters the picture. As Verdery and Margolis sum up: “Evidence is accumulating that the legacy of divorce and remarriage has a long reach straining inter-generational relationships and suppressing the support that divorced parents, stepparents, and remarried biological parents might expect from their children in later life.”
The authors don’t mention cohabitation, but it’s a key ingredient in the rise of kinlessness. Superficially, cohabitation looks roughly equivalent to marriage; couples live together as “husband and wife,” sharing a bed, living space, meals, and, in many cases, children, but without the ring and city-hall certificate. In reality, especially in the U.S., shacking up is a kind of marriage-lite that has added to the tenuousness of post-transition relations. Cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than marrieds. Separated, cohabiting fathers are more likely to withdraw from their kids’ lives than previously married and divorced dads, who are already more unreliable than married dads still in the house. One study of low-income cohabiting parents found that, within three years, half the fathers had moved out; a considerable number would vanish from their kids’ lives entirely. Cohabiting and single parents also have looser ties to their own parents and friends than marrieds. According to the 2018 Cigna study, single parents are about the loneliest of Americans.
In translating family formation into a strictly private matter, the SDT whistled past a critical fact of our history—namely, that kinship has been the most powerful glue of human groups since Homo sapiens first discovered the mother-in-law. Evolutionary psychologists have a compelling theory about why: humans practiced “reciprocal altruism” in relation to kin because they had a stake in the reproductive success of their genetic relations. Even evolutionary-psychology skeptics, though, might notice that though marriage has shape-shifted over the centuries and across cultures, it has always defined those people—spouses, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, in-laws—to whom we owe special attention and mutual protection. That would explain why cohabiting couples, even those with children, don’t have the same support from extended family as married couples with children. Marriage creates kin; cohabitation does not.
Some of the most crucial obligations of kinship have always been to tend to the sick and to bury the dead. Even today, the vast majority of (unpaid) caretaking of the aging in the U.S. is done by relatives, according to Putnam. In 2015, the New York Times Magazine published a memorable article, “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” that captures the existential plight of the kinless. The subject was a 74-year-old Queens man whose body was discovered by police after neighbors complained about the foul odor coming from his apartment. His badly decomposed body left him unrecognizable, but even had he been found earlier, only one or two people on earth could have ID’d him. George Bell had no brothers or sisters, his parents were both long dead, he had no children, and he had never married.
The kinless elderly are often hoarders who hang on to every stray electric bill, used coffee cup, or odd bit of broken furniture that enters their apartment; perhaps the chaos of useless objects is the objective correlative of their sense of abandonment. The article describes one woman whose apartment was “so swollen with belongings that [she] died standing up, unable to collapse to the floor.” Bell’s own stash, which took seven hours to clear out, included four new tire gauges and six unopened ironing-board covers.
A death like Bell’s mobilizes an impressive cadre of officials in addition to junk removers and cleaners: a medical examiner, who calls local doctors and hospitals to see if anyone has records for the deceased; a medical legal investigator to rule out foul play; police detectives to track down close relatives or friends by calling phone numbers found in papers strewn around the apartment, and, when that fails, a “decedent property agent,” who disposes of unclaimed property; a “kinship investigator,” required by law to find next of kin down to first cousin once removed; and employees of both the city-chosen funeral home and crematory. After creating a family tree, the investigator learned of several cousins scattered around the country and abroad; as it happened, they were themselves dead, or couldn’t be reached, or said that they hadn’t spoken to Bell in decades. Investigators found a will with four legatees, including a long-ago girlfriend. She was notified about the bequest but died before she received it, which meant that the money—mostly from the sale of Bell’s apartment—went to her own legatees, who had never met or even heard of him. N. R. Kleinfield, who wrote the piteous story, pieced together some details of Bell’s life, one of which was full of tragic irony, given the anonymous isolation of his demise: he had fed and bathed his mother, who had severe arthritis in her old age, until her death.
For a fuller picture of the brave new kinless world, consider Japan, a country now in the throes of an epidemic of kodokushi, roughly translated as “lonely deaths.” Local Japanese papers regularly publish stories about kinless elderly whose deaths go unnoticed until the telltale smell of maggot-eaten flesh alerts neighbors. Such deaths are common enough that Japanese entrepreneurs have created an industry of cleaning companies for dealing with their aftereffects. Last year, a reporter watched as workers clad in full-body protective gear from one of those companies—with the chilling name “Next”—disinfected the apartment of Hiroaki, a 54-year-old divorced man with no children. No one noticed that he had been gone for four months, and even then, it was only because Hiroaki’s rent money, which had been automatically deducted from a savings account, had dried up. A representative of the building’s management company finally discovered his decomposed remains on a soiled futon.
Lonely-death cleaning companies promise to be a good investment in Japan. The culture’s legendary filial piety has gone the way of the samurai; children and grandchildren are often too busy or far away for regular visiting. And that’s for the lucky ones who have progeny. A record number of young people are forgoing marriage, just as they are in the United States. But unlike other post-transition countries, Japan is not replacing marriage with “nonconventional” family arrangements. Divorce, nonmarital births, single parents, and cohabitation remain rare. (Oddly, even sex appears to be losing its appeal for young Japanese men and women.) The country’s fertility rate is about the lowest in the world, and despite Prime Minister Shinzo¯ Abe’s support for parental leave, tax incentives, and various other measures designed to increase births, there’s no sign of public enthusiasm for marriage and baby-making. “The general concept of family in Japan has fallen apart,” as Masaki Ichinose, of the Centre for Life and Death Studies at the University of Tokyo, told the Washington Post.
One way to respond to lonely deaths is with an existential shrug. “We are fools to depend upon the society of our fellow-men,” Pascal wrote. “Wretched as we are, powerless as we are, they will not aid us; we shall die alone.” Loneliness is as much a part of the human condition as joy, you could argue, and, at any rate, it is a price we should be willing to pay for freedom from dictatorial patriarchal rule. The Second Demographic Transition offered relief from many of life’s most palpable miseries: hectoring or depressed wives, abusive or sullen or just hapless husbands, controlling relatives, and taboos on premarital and gay sex. It expanded emotional and psychological horizons and attachments to new people, places, and experiences, and gave us permission to explore myriad ways to eat, pray, and love. How many would choose to sacrifice those freedoms—even if doing so could guarantee a crowded funeral?
Hard-nosed realists could also correctly point out that over-romanticizing family bonds has its own risks. People can feel lonely and despairing amid a boisterous family Thanksgiving dinner. If family members inspire our most intense love, they can also provoke the most rage and frustration. And let’s not forget that many people want to live alone. Researching Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, sociologist Eric Klinenberg was surprised to hear from most of his elderly subjects, especially women, that they preferred living by themselves to the available alternatives, including living with their children.
Yet these benefits shouldn’t prevent a clear-eyed accounting of other blowback from the Second Demographic Transition that goes beyond lonely deaths. The transition helped shape a social ecology that would worsen some of our most vexing social problems, including growing inequality. Throughout the Western world, wealthier, more educated parents tend more often to be married before they have children, and to stay married, than do their less advantaged fellow citizens. Their children benefit not just from their parents’ financial advantages, with all the computer camps and dance lessons that a flush checking account can buy, but from the familiar routines and predictable households that seem to help the young figure out the complex world they’ll be entering. The children of lower-income, less educated parents, by contrast, are more likely to see their married parents divorce or their cohabiting parents separate, and then to have to readjust to the strangers—stepparents, boyfriends or girlfriends, step- or half-siblings—who come into their lives. Some children will be introduced to a succession of newcomers as their parents divorce or separate a second or even third time.
Why, after the transition, did the rich continue to have reasonably stable and predictable domestic lives while the working class and poor stumbled onto what family scholar Andrew Cherlin calls the “marriage-go-round”? Observers typically point to deindustrialization and the loss of stable, decent-paying low-skilled jobs for men. True enough. A jobless man, especially one without a high school diploma, is no one’s idea of a good catch. But there’s more to the marriage gap than that. While the loosening of traditional rules gave women freedom to leave violent or cruel husbands, it also changed the cultural environment for couples trying to weather less dangerous stresses and disappointments, including a pink slip. Lower-income men and women are bound to have more financial anxieties, more work accidents, and more broken-down cars and evictions, and they lack the funds for Disneyland vacations, massages, and psychotherapists that might take some of the edge off a struggling marriage. And they see few, if any, long-term married couples who could offer a successful model. With single parenthood and cohabitation both on the lifestyle menu, what they see instead is an easy out.
When so many marriages melt into thin air, lower-income kin networks, a source of job connections, child care, and family meals, attenuate as well. Your mother’s sister’s husband—your uncle by marriage—might give you a tip about a job opening at a local machine shop; an uncle separated from your aunt and living with a girlfriend with her own kids in the next town over, maybe not. Communities flush with fatherless households tend to be troubled. In his landmark study of county-level social mobility, economist Raj Chetty discovered that places thick with married-couple families created more opportunity for kids, regardless of whether they were living in a married or single-parent household; places with large numbers of single-parent homes, on the other hand, pulled kids down—including those living with married parents. It’s hard to imagine more concrete evidence of the truth of the old cliché that family is the building block of society.
Racial inequality predates the transition, of course, but with their families and communities already weakened by slavery, racism, and clumsy government policies, black Americans were hit hard. Verdery and Margolis believe that blacks are at especially high risk of kinlessness as they age. Black women are two times as likely as whites to have never married by age 45, and two times as likely to be divorced, widowed, or separated. Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. Black nonresidential fathers tend to see their kids more than do white men living apart from their offspring in the early months and years of the child’s life; but over time, they fade out of the picture. An oncologist of my acquaintance working at an inner-city hospital tells me that he sees a remarkable number of black men arriving at the clinic for treatment by themselves. If they get hospitalized, visitors are sparse; as they near death, still no one comes. “My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but no family,” Frederick Douglass once wrote. Many black men could now say something similar about themselves.
Family instability and fatherlessness collide with racial and economic disadvantage to create a negative feedback loop in black communities, hampering children’s potential and perpetuating racial inequality. Black children are by far the least likely of any demographic group to go through childhood living with both parents. Considering that kids from single-parent homes, black and white, have less chance of completing high school and college and a greater chance of becoming single parents themselves, the current calculus of inequality will endure. A just-published study by demographer John Iceland concludes that differences in family structure are the most significant variable in explaining the black–white affluence gap. In fact, its importance has grown over time relative to other explanations, including discrimination. Unable to pool earnings with a spouse, to take advantage of economies of scale, and to share child care, black single parents have a tougher time than their married counterparts building a nest egg.
In more recent decades, the transition has eroded the God-fearing, “middle American” white working-class family, too—and their communities. As of 1980, about 75 percent of white working-class adults were married, a figure very close to the 79 percent of high-income adults. By 2017, however, the working-class number had fallen to only 52 percent. Worse, white working-class adults divorce at much higher rates than more educated adults. “The white working-class family is today more fragile than the black family was at the time of the famous alarm-sounding 1965 ‘Report on the Negro Family’ by Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” Putnam has written. J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy evokes that fragility: his parents divorced when he was little, and his father disappeared from his life until he was a teenager; a series of his mother’s boyfriends and husbands cycled through J. D.’s childhood; his maternal grandmother fought constantly with her drunken husband, once dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire.
The crumbling of the white working-class family has contributed to the country’s opioid crisis. Opioids are now the leading cause of death for people under 50: a majority of them are unmarried or divorced men. Though only 32 percent of the population, that group of adults accounts for a stunning 71 percent of opioid deaths. Opioids themselves, now a larger cause of American deaths than car accidents, are poisoning the foundational kinship bond between parents and children. Officials believe that opioids are at the root of a heartrending increase in foster-care placements. Fourteen states experienced a 25 percent rise or more in the number of kids sent to foster care between 2011 and 2015; Maine saw a 45 percent increase in that same period. Can it be a coincidence that the drug dominating today’s headlines provokes a similar response in the brain as the hormone oxytocin does? Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” occurs naturally at moments of intense love and connection: during childbirth, breastfeeding, and orgasm. Opioids, Andrew Sullivan wrote in a powerful essay on the epidemic in New York, have given the lonely a “shortcut—and an instant intensification—of the happiness [they] might ordinarily experience in a good and fruitful communal life.”
And finally, there is family breakdown’s role in the “deaths of despair,” as economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call the exploding number of deaths by suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdose. Case and Deaton shocked demographers and policymakers several years ago when they published findings showing that the increase was enough to reverse the long-term trend toward longer, healthier lives, one of the proudest signs of human progress. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, suicide suddenly surged for both white men and white women. Case and Deaton found these deaths especially common among people with only high school or less education and among separated, divorced, and widowed (though not single) men. Public-health researchers have known for a long time that unmarried men and women are at higher risk of early death from a variety of diseases. One spouse might find a suspicious-looking mole on the other’s back or notice if she’s drinking more than her usual. And who hasn’t heard accounts of relatives stopping harried nurses from giving patients the wrong medication?
Notice that men are more likely to die from opioid overdoses and other deaths of despair. Men seem to have a harder time coping with isolation and family breakdown than women. Most of the lonely deaths in Japan are men. Fathers continue to have more tenuous relations with their children than mothers do, despite growing cultural preference for gender-equal child care. A 2016 report from the University of Michigan Population Studies Center found that an extraordinary 20 percent of young adults in the U.S. have absolutely no contact with their fathers (not including those who have died), far higher than the 6.5 percent who no longer talked to their mothers. Women initiate more divorces, and when the papers are signed, according to a Pew survey, they are more likely to swear off marriage for good; men tend to want to remarry. In Going Solo, Klinenberg discovered that women are far more adept at creating their own social networks, going out with groups of friends, volunteering at local charities, and the like. Single women will purchase a home more often than do single men. Even after the SDT, women are the more intuitive homemakers.
Turn the place completely upside-down, inside-out, and you still won’t find a solution to kinlessness, social isolation, and their tragic fallout in the office of a Minister of Loneliness. Government can fund services for the isolated and frail elderly. Many American cities have neighborhood senior centers with help desks and activities to keep the aged active and socially connected. Civil society has also jumped in, with groups like Meals on Wheels and Seniors Helping Seniors. Churches and other religious institutions help keep an eye on elderly congregants.
These efforts are undeniably beneficial; sometimes, they save lives. But when you consider the more damaging systemic changes wrought by the transition, they are little more than aspirin for a gaping wound.
Though there’s no going back to a time when people had little freedom to pursue personal life on their own terms, there are reasons to think that some healing is possible. The transition put unprecedented personal autonomy up for sale, but as it happened, relatively few were interested in buying the whole package. An innate human desire for elemental familial bonds continued to assert itself. In surveys, Americans today describe family relations as the most meaningful part of their lives, far surpassing work and friends. Post-transition Europeans are no less sold on family as the major source of meaning in life. As they reach middle age, most Americans remain heavily involved in supporting and advising elderly parents. American women continue to report a relatively high number of desired children. You’ve heard about—or maybe logged onto—Ancestry.com? It’s not some soon-to-be-forgotten fad like Candy Crush to feed short attention spans. Instead, it’s tapping into a deep desire to discover family roots that connect us to a place, a collective story, and a corner of history. “Uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots,” as Christopher Lasch once wrote.
The challenge is to find ways to communicate that need to coming generations before they make decisions that will further fragment their lives and communities. So far, that’s not happening. Millennials and their younger brothers and sisters say that they would like to marry and have children, but only 30 percent see a successful marriage as one of the more important things in life. About half shrug off single parenthood as a nonissue; in their view, cohabitation is fundamentally the same as marriage. Though the overall share of American babies born to unmarried mothers has declined a bit in the past few years, the majority of births to millennials are to unmarried women. So far, younger kids—Gen Z, as they are sometimes called—don’t look as though they’re ready to rebel from the nonchalance of their older siblings. In a 2018 survey of attitudes of 10- to 19-year-olds by PerryUndem Research and Communication, three-quarters rated having a successful career as “very important.” Fewer than a third said that marrying or having children mattered that much. Notably, boys and girls had almost identical answers.
This doesn’t surprise me. My boomer acquaintances, college-educated professionals and devoted parents, nudged and prodded their kids from elementary school through college and beyond to prepare for the Big Career. When it came to that other crucial life goal—finding a loyal, loving spouse, a devoted mother or father for their children—their lips were sealed. Such traditional aspirations would have seemed an imposition on their children’s authentic desires rather than a piece of learned wisdom. Yet learn it they had: they danced euphorically at their children’s weddings and are now putting dinner companions to sleep rattling on about the grandkids.
For the most part, this studied cultural silence about marriage, children, and kinship hasn’t damaged the prospects for my peers’ kids to create and sustain bonds so essential to individual and social well-being. They see these relationships all around them; they’re part of the air they breathe. That’s far from the case in less advantaged communities, where the most elemental bonds are fraying like a piece of 100-year-old muslin. Most policy discussions about the troubles of the American working class and poor center on vocational and technical education, higher-paying and reliable jobs, and benefits. These are necessary efforts, but they are not enough to counter the loneliness, kinlessness, and despair crushing so many spirits. There also must be what Tom Wolfe called a “Great Re-learning” about how to satisfy the human longing for continuity and connection.
And it’s not just for the sake of the children.
Top Photo: JONAS BENDIKSEN/MAGNUM PHOTOS
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