Alone: The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness

Alone: The decline of the family has unleashed an epidemic of loneliness. By Kay Hymowitz.

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. …

British prime minister Theresa May recently appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.” …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

Postwar baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were Generation Zero for the Second Demographic Transition in the United States. … 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. …

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. … Kinship has been the most powerful glue of human groups since Homo sapiens first discovered the mother-in-law. … 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. …

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. …

“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. …

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. …

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.

The left declared war on the family sixty years ago, led by the feminists — so much progress! What a bitter harvest.