Loneliness and the Nuclear Family02-27-2020
By Roger Berkowitz
What are the great problems facing the country? If one follows the political theatrics these days, it is whether we should have Medicare for all or Medicare for all who want it. Add to that questions about how much to tax billionaires and the middle class, how many immigrants should be welcomed, and National Disclosure Agreements. Arguably, however, the greatest threat to our constitutional, democratic, and republican traditions comes from a threat much more silent and pervasive, the rise of mass loneliness.
The political thinker who first intuited the danger loneliness poses for politics is Hannah Arendt. Arendt asks after the "basic experience which finds its expression in totalitarian domination." She names that experience loneliness. Totalitarianism, she argues, "bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man." For Arendt, mass loneliness leads to a crisis of meaninglessness and purposelessness. Amidst a pervasive loneliness, masses seek meaning and certainty in ideological movements that replace the complexity of reality with ideological fictions that are more adequate to the needs of abandoned human beings than is the complex realities in which we live.
Recently, a few political commentators have explored loneliness as a political issue. Senator Ben Sasse’s book Them: Why We Hate Each Other sets loneliness at the center of the study on political divisiveness defining our contemporary moment. Sasse argues that in order to combat this epidemic of loneliness, we look for a feeling of community, to find a “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.” In order to address our mass loneliness, which is being used by political opportunists, we have to “become the kind of neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.” For Sasse, loneliness is the “inability to find meaning in one’s life.” He cites numerous examples of how Americans are increasingly lonely.
There is also Robert Putnam’s study of bowlers that show how Americans continue to bowl, but not in leagues and groups. Sometime around 1975 Americans stopped having friends over for dinner: from 1975 to 1999, the average number of annual dinner parties dropped from 14 to 8. Even friends are increasingly rare: “Americans reported that the number of people they discussed ‘important matters’ with dropped, on average, from three to two…. More alarmingly, the number of Americans who count no friends at all—no one in whom they confide about important matters, no one with whom they share life’s joys and burdens—has soared.” Now more than 25% of Americans say they have no friends.
Now in an essay in The Atlantic, David Brooks argues that loneliness in the modern world is a corollary of the outdated nuclear family structure. Summarizing his argument about the changes in the nuclear family, Brooks writes:
If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.
Brooks explores numerous alternatives and complements to the nuclear family that are already workable today and that address the loneliness of our time. What he sees is that loneliness is an essential political issue and more political leaders need to address how to make our lives less lonely. Brooks writes:
Ever since I started working on this article, a chart has been haunting me. It plots the percentage of people living alone in a country against that nation’s GDP. There’s a strong correlation. Nations where a fifth of the people live alone, like Denmark and Finland, are a lot richer than nations where almost no one lives alone, like the ones in Latin America or Africa. Rich nations have smaller households than poor nations. The average German lives in a household with 2.7 people. The average Gambian lives in a household with 13.8 people.
That chart suggests two things, especially in the American context. First, the market wants us to live alone or with just a few people. That way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs. Second, when people who are raised in developed countries get money, they buy privacy.
For the privileged, this sort of works. The arrangement enables the affluent to dedicate more hours to work and email, unencumbered by family commitments. They can afford to hire people who will do the work that extended family used to do. But a lingering sadness lurks, an awareness that life is emotionally vacant when family and close friends aren’t physically present, when neighbors aren’t geographically or metaphorically close enough for you to lean on them, or for them to lean on you. Today’s crisis of connection flows from the impoverishment of family life.
I often ask African friends who have immigrated to America what most struck them when they arrived. Their answer is always a variation on a theme—the loneliness. It’s the empty suburban street in the middle of the day, maybe with a lone mother pushing a baby carriage on the sidewalk but nobody else around.
For those who are not privileged, the era of the isolated nuclear family has been a catastrophe. It’s led to broken families or no families; to merry-go-round families that leave children traumatized and isolated; to senior citizens dying alone in a room. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart. Eventually family inequality even undermines the economy the nuclear family was meant to serve: Children who grow up in chaos have trouble becoming skilled, stable, and socially mobile employees later on.