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The Loneliness Epidemic

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The Loneliness Epidemic

10 Blocks podcast May 29, 2019
The Social Order

Kay Hymowitz joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss a challenge facing aging populations in wealthy nations across the world: loneliness. Her essay in the Spring 2019 issue, “Alone,” explores this subject.

“Americans are suffering from a bad case of loneliness,” Hymowitz writes. “Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of ‘deaths of despair’ suggest a profound, collective discontent.”

Evidence of the loneliness epidemic is dramatic in other countries, too. Japan, for example, has seen a troubling rise in “lonely deaths.” The challenge, Hymowitz says, is to teach younger generations the importance of family and community before they make decisions that will further isolate them.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Kay Hymowitz, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a longtime contributing editor at the magazine. Her latest piece in City Journal is called “Alone: The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness.” That's the subtitle. It's one of the great pieces she's ever written in City Journal and I encourage you to find it on our website. Lastly, just one more announcement. We created a new email address for the show, so if listeners want to get in touch and drop a comment or share an idea, you can now email us at podcast@city-journal.org. That's podcast@city-journal.org. That's it for the introduction. We'll take a quick break and we'll be back with Kay Hymowitz.

Brian Anderson: Hello again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal and joining us in the studio now is Kay Hymowitz. She's a contributing editor at City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @KayHymowitz. And she's the author of many books, most recently the New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back, which came out in 2017. And prior to that, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, which came out in 2011. We're here today though to talk about her latest piece in City Journal called Alone. Kay, thanks very much for joining us.

Kay Hymowitz: I'm happy to be here, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So let's just start off. What made you want to write about the topic of loneliness, and what is the state of loneliness in America?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, let me start by saying I didn't actually set out to write about loneliness. I knew it was a great topic, but I wasn't exactly sure how to approach it. And I stumbled across an article that inspired me by two social scientists, I think they're demographers. And they described something called a rise of kinlessness, that is a rise in the number of people who have no kin, older people who have no kin. And it was very eye opening and I began to see that the breakdown of the family that I've been studying for maybe 15 years now and that I had mostly talked about in relation to its impact on children was also having quite an impact on older people, particularly aging adults. And that some of the despair that we were hearing about, the deaths of despair, the opioid crisis and so on so forth, are actually disproportionately made up of divorced and single, well, of men, in particular. So I realized that we're looking at something big here in terms of the family breakdown and its ultimate impact is something that I hadn't quite foreseen or thought of.

Brian Anderson: It's probably worth rehearsing some of the numbers in terms of this breakdown in family. Divorce rates for married couples, I think, are probably double what they were back in the 50s.

Kay Hymowitz: They are indeed.

Brian Anderson: But in some ways the picture's even darker. You have 40% of kids, I think, are born to unmarried mothers now. That's up from 5% in 1960. And strikingly the rate of women who don't give birth at all, I think, has doubled or is much higher. Yeah. And you could go on and on in this vein. This is obviously the core of your argument that's having a big impact on loneliness and kinlessness and this whole phenomenon. So say a bit more about that and what do you think is driving it?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I think that a lot of what's happening is due to a change in our understanding of what the family is, what its purpose is. I talk a lot in the article about the beginnings of what I see is the unraveling of the family, or shall we say, a kind of assault on, on the traditional family. I want to clarify that as we go on. I see the beginnings of it in something that demographers call the Second Demographic Transition. We sometimes talk about the, in ordinary parlance, we talk about the 60s or the Sexual Revolution. But those were actually an American reflection of something that has, as I said, demographers have been studying. The second demographic transition they believe is partly the result of affluence as he, as the societies in the west in particular, but also over time Japan and others, as they got richer, families were not as essential to mere survival as they had one been. Now this was intensified this fact by the introduction of the birth control pill, obviously because you could control sexual reproduction without worrying about whether you're married or not. And what the theory is that this would introduce a different set of values, anti-authoritarian, and little bit of anti-tradition. Individualistic. As people began to see they could be freer to find other ways of living than to depend entirely on family or depend mostly on their families. And in fact, following the second demographic transition, um, there was a huge increase as you, just as you just pointed out in your numbers in the percentage of divorces, the percentage of non-marital births. And this by the way, is not just true in the United States, but in other developed countries. Not all of them, but many. And also of fatherlessness. So I think that these ideas that emerged with affluence and the second demographic transition made it possible for people to think very differently about how they were going to live. And I should say now, because I'll be talking about the downsides of this, what followed from the second demographic transition. But it did really give people a lot of freedom. And there's no question that there were many people for relieved from very miserable and even violent marriages. As a result of the second demographic transition. There were many different ways to think about letting the people, it was possible to not be married if you really didn't want to. Which I think has worked nicely for some individuals. And of course it opened up the door to gay marriage, for much more freedom for gays and lesbians. So there is a tremendous upside and I don't want to discount that. But what I try to do in this article or show that there's some real downsides that we haven't quite understood.

Brian Anderson: What are some of those downsides? Why is it a problem for society that people are increasingly alone? And what are some of the manifestations of that that are negative?

Kay Hymowitz: Right. So one of the things that I try to do in the article is to remind people that kinship, those close family relations, blood and marital relations, have been kind of the linchpin of societies practically since we came out of the caves. It is absolutely fundamental to every society. The relationship between kin and what it does is... Those relationships define certain kinds of obligations. We tend to be more protective of kin and to understand our roles better when in relation to kin. Everything else, all of our other relationships may be very important to us, but we're making those up pretty much as we go along. And the kinship... As we've sort of gotten rid of that basic building block, or we've sort of undermined it through the divorce revolution, the sexual revolution in the second demographic transition, we've undermined the way kin work. So one point I make is that there's been a huge rise in cohabitation and particularly among less educated and lower income people. Cohabitation has become a kind of substitute for marriage. And the hope among, social scientists and sociologists and economists was always that gradually people would realize that you could cohabit, but you really ought to stay together. That it would be a kind of it, that it would be a kind of marriage or marriage light. But in fact, that's not what's happened. What's happened is that the, the norm of cohabitation is much more transitory, impermanent, fragile, and unpredictable. And those couples who were cohabitating and do not go onto marry tend to break up much, much more quickly.

Brian Anderson: This is even true when they have children?

Kay Hymowitz: Oh yes, definitely. The children of cohabiting couples are having a very, very different upbringing than the children of married couples. Now, it's true. we do have higher rates of divorce than we used to, although it's stabilized. And one of the reasons it's stabilized is that so many people are not getting married anymore, they are cohabiting. The upshot is that there are an awful lot of children, as I've pointed out many times before growing up in very unstable environments, but then an awful lot of parents, particularly men, who are losing direct contact with their kids. Now most men, after a divorce or after a child out of marriage, try to maintain some contact. But that tends to, it's not always true, that tends to fade out over time. Remember a lot of the people who are cohabiting, having children as their cohabiting are young, and understandably if that relationship doesn't work out, that go on and seek out another one. Well, what often happens is that there is a new family that develops out of that second union and possibly even a third or forth. So the child is faced with a, and fathers too, are faced with this rolling cast of people, none of whom have quite the connection of the kin of the old fashioned can relationships so that those men are frequently on their own as they get older. And if I could just add a little personal observation here that some people might not agree with, men just don't make homes or, you know make even make friends quite the way that women do. And we do have some data on this as well.

Brian Anderson: Looking around the world, and you noted this earlier, we know that the US isn't the only country facing problems of loneliness. One of the most striking examples in your story is Japan, which was seen just an incredible rise in what they call "lonely deaths." Maybe you could describe a little bit the situation there and how Japan is dealing with it?

Kay Hymowitz: Japan is an interesting contrast. to the United States in some ways in other western countries because non marital childbearing, single motherhood is relatively rare, unlike here. And also divorce is, relatively rare. It's getting, it's getting more common. What's happening instead is that an awful lot of people are not having children, so therefore their fertility rates are very, very low.

Brian Anderson: Well below replacement rate, I believe?

Kay Hymowitz: Well below replacement. Ours are low, but this is lower. I read one a social Japanese social scientists who said that the basic concept of the family in Japan is dead. So there's an awful lot of elderly people on their own, living alone. And by the way, dependent on the state to support them because they don't have any family to speak of. Or their family has moved away, or is extremely busy with work. We know that the Japanese are workaholics. But they started to see this rise in lonely deaths, which, we're beginning to see here too. And it became such a phenomenon in Japan that the newspapers started to cover, local newspapers would start to cover these stories that were happening very frequently. And in addition, this was the part that kind of, caused me to sit up and wonder. There are businesses now, there are cleanup companies, to take care of apartments after a lonely death because what happens is that when somebody dies and they're alone and nobody's really watching out for them, they often die in their apartment. Nobody knows they're dead. Nobody finds them until the telltale smell of decaying body. And it makes a huge mess for building owners or landlords. So they've started these companies, these cleanup companies. And I believe I mentioned the name of one of them, which is kind of grim. It's called Next.

Brian Anderson: Yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: But these companies, there are a fair number of them and they've become an essential, essential part of Japanese life.

Brian Anderson: It's a very, very grim reality. I've been reading a book by Cal Newport called Digital Minimalism, and it's an argument against being immersed in social media and other forms of technologically driven distraction. He says, we need to set more time for our sanity sake to be alone or at least off of the Internet and this constant bombardment of, of connection with other people. In other words, he's saying technology is making us constantly exposed to other people in ways that can harm us. At least if it goes too far. How does social media and the constant judgment that people sometimes feel themselves under through social media if they're participating in it, how does that intersect with the argument that you're making?

Kay Hymowitz: Well social media, I'm thinking of Facebook in particular was supposed to bring us all together. Right? It was the social network. We were going to create all these new social networks and you know, I think some people have been able to use it that way. I have ordered up to make contact with old high school friends or whatever, but it has also added to a sense of anxiety as people post pictures of their happy family occasions. They can look like things are just so wonderful and peachy keen for everybody else while you're feeling down in the dumps. So what does that expression, "fomo," fear of missing out? You're missing parties that you might've been invited to... People are taking wonderful trips that you, you know, don't have anybody to travel with or whatever. So I think it can exacerbate loneliness in that way because you're constantly comparing yourself to other people at their peak moments because that's when people post their pictures. And there is something about, aside from the fomo, aside from that, the kinds of connections you make through social media don't seem to be the same as those should make in real life. I haven't seen wonderful research on this yet, but it seems to me an area ripe for exploration. It seems so clear somehow that you can be online, communicating, even playing games with people, from all over the world, and seemingly making new friends and still feel quite lonely and be lonely because you turn off the computer or walk into another room and you're alone.

Brian Anderson: A lot's been written, especially since the election of Donald Trump, about the state of rust belt communities. The opioid crisis, which you mentioned earlier. How much in your view is the family breakdown you're describing having an impact on those communities? And is it part of what's causing the problem or is it an outgrowth of the breakdown in those communities? Economic breakdown.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, there's no question that family breakdown exacerbates and intensifies the loss of these communities, or rather the jobs, the factories that have left. If you lose your job and you lose your wife or husband because to opioids, or they've just left, then you've got real trouble. You don't have anybody to support you through difficult times. One of the things I argue in that piece is that the breakdown in the family has not affected educated and well off people anywhere near to the extent that it has... well, blacks, and also now the white working class that came a little bit later. And I think what we underestimated, we who lived through the second demographic transition and played a role in pushing it actually because I was in college in the 1960s when a lot of these ideas were being tested out and promulgated. If the educated classes, the more well to do classes, were able to figure out a way to maintain their families, what they didn't anticipate, or that none of us anticipated, was that it would be much harder for people who were living more on the edge, who had evictions to worry about or layoffs or a factory closing. You need, in those cases, a culture that really supports, a cultural environment, that really supports the idea of the family and of kinship as people... as people that are there for you in hard times.

Brian Anderson: Providing a network of support...

Kay Hymowitz: That's right. That's right. And in those communities instead, we saw a more and more of a collapse of the family. Now was it possible that, we could have, in a different cultural environment, it could have been different? Maybe, maybe. It's very hard to disentangle the cause and effect here, but there's no question that they go hand... the loss of the working class or the manufacturing jobs, has definitely been related to the breakdown of the family in the working class. Now I should mention that one of the things that's happened as a result, well, related again to the breakdown of the family in those communities, is this opioid crisis. Opioids, as you may know, is now killing more people than traffic accidents, than car accidents. And I was amazed to see in a recent study that the victims or the people who die of opioid death are much more likely to be single, unmarried or divorced men. And that speaks of exactly what I've been trying to describe. I think that women are better at creating their own social networks. This was something that the sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book called Going Solo, about people living alone. It's something he noticed as he started to interview people who were living alone. Even among the elderly women were more likely to want to live alone. They didn't want to remarry if there were widowed or divorced. But who kept fairly rich lives, they were still able to... they volunteered. They had friends, networks of friends that they could go out with, and that sort of thing. So, and if there were children, they were closer to the kids than a single father. So they had all those supports. Men seem to suffer much more loneliness than women. And you know, we can debate from here to eternity why that is. But there it is.

Brian Anderson: Well, to ask a final question, and it's how you conclude your piece: What might be necessary to start re-knitting the social fabric in a way that might address this problem. You mentioned Tom Wolfe's idea of a "Great Re-learning." Say a little bit about that?

Kay Hymowitz: Well first, I should say that there are a lot of government programs for seniors, a lot of, on the federal level and the city and local level. There are all kinds of ways that civil society jumps in. Seniors Helping Seniors is one group, Meals on Wheels, organizations like that. They are absolutely essential and beneficial and I don't want to knock them at all, but they don't begin to address the loss that a lot of people are feeling, or the loneliness. So one of the things that struck me in thinking about all this was how much joy and pleasure so many of my friends, and I should say I'm 70 years old, so many of my friends now with grandchildren, would mostly worry when their kids were growing up about their careers. They would focus so much on their education. Starting from early on, we were the beginning of helicopter parents, not quite as bad as today, but it did begin quite a while ago. But never talking about this other, what I consider to be the other big goal in life: to find a spouse, a kind and reliable and giving spouse who will make a good mother or father for your children. Because most people are going to want children. And society's depend on them wanting children. Those parents didn't talk to their kids about these things. And yet here I was going to weddings and watching these grandchildren being born and the parents were going nuts. I thought, well, why wouldn't they ever talk about the joy of this stage of life and of the connection that we now have with our children. And this is one lovely thing of the that has followed the second demographic transition is, I think, there's a much, much less of a generation gap between me and my kids then there was between me and my own parents because,

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I think that's true.

Kay Hymowitz: And there's a kind of companionship and friendship that I didn't see in my day so much. We have that, and it's a source of great comfort and pleasure. I think for most of the people that are able to experience it. So I note all that because I want readers to realize that this is something we don't talk about to our kids very much. And so we have another generation, growing up, who have never heard those words or any of those concepts from their parents or from anybody.

Brian Anderson: Well maybe it's a time for a different kind of conversation. In any case, don't forget to check out Kay's brilliant essay in City Journal, it's called Alone. It's in our latest issue you can find it on our website and we will link to it in the description. You can follow Kay on Twitter @KayHymowitz. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI, and always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, give us a nice rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening, and thanks, Kay Hymowitz, for joining us.

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