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.” …
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. …
The [20th century social/demographic] 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.
Aloneness and loneliness