How Family Structure Impacts Loneliness

How Family Structure Impacts Loneliness

How Family Structure Impacts Loneliness

For decades, concern has been expressed about how family breakdown impacts children, but the future impact on adults hasn’t received much attention. That's changing.

In 2018, a Cigna study set off alarms about loneliness and its potential root causes as it indicated loneliness is at epidemic proportions in America. 

In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys and The New Brooklyn: How to Bring a City Back, addresses how the rise in the breakdown of the family has created an increase in kinlessness. This phenomenon is impacting older adults in profound ways.

Hymowitz cites studies, including one by Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis, that showed a surge in the number of “kinless” older adults. 

“A jump in the number of never-married and divorced adults is also part of the kinlessness story,” writes Hymowitz. “Baby 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.”

Hymowitz also cites Robert Putnam’s work Bowling Alone, where Putnam raised the caution flag about the decline people were experiencing in social capital, especially the likelihood that boomers would experience a lonelier old age than the greatest generation before them. 

Divorced people don’t typically have ex-spouses who are willing to take care of them in their old age or illness, nor do stepchildren typically care for stepparents as they would care for their biological parent. Even biological parents who walked away from their children now find themselves navigating old age alone

Verdery and Margolis summarize their findings: “Evidence is accumulating that the legacy of divorce and remarriage has a long reach straining intergenerational relationships and suppressing the support that divorced parents, stepparents and remarried biological parents might expect from their children later in life.”

Additionally, Hymowitz mentions cohabitation as 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,” Hymowitz says. She asserts that the increase in couples who are living together has added to the fragility of post-transition relations.

Consider this: Cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than married couples. Separated, cohabiting fathers are more likely to withdraw from their children’s lives than divorced dads. Cohabiting and single parents have looser ties to their own parents and friends than marrieds. Plus, the Cigna study found that single parents are about the loneliest Americans.

“Even evolutionary-psychology skeptics, 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,” Hymowitz says. “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.”

It is worth noting that even today, the vast majority of unpaid caretaking of the aging in the U.S. is done by relatives, according to Putnam. Hymowitz surmises that a lot of what’s happening is due to a change in our understanding of what the family is and its purpose. Hymowitz points out that kinless elders are often hoarders who hang on to every stray electric bill, used coffee cup or odd bit of broken furniture. They cling to their stuff for lack of meaningful human interaction.

“Uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots,” wrote American historian Christopher Lasch. Hymowitz believes one of our greatest challenges is to communicate that need to coming generations before they make decisions that will further fragment their lives and communities.

In conclusion, Hymowitz reminds us that the 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 must be what Tom Wolfe called a “great relearning” about how to satisfy the human longing for continuity and connection.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 14, 2019.