There is an old saying: “We’re born alone, and we die alone.” However, at least in the United States in the early 21st century, there seems to be a corollary jammed right in between those two: We now live alone.
Census data show that we currently have a record—and growing—number of single occupant households in our nation, accounting for about 28% of American homes. More and more that voice we hear when we come home from a hard day at work comes from our television. We want connection—but none is to be found—so we seek a substitute. Our innate human yearning for caring and companionship often becomes a silicon chip simulacrum where we are left to share our small victories and bitterest heartaches with a worldwide audience of strangers on Snapchat or Facebook—or we simply rely on our cat for a sympathetic ear.
It should, therefore, not be much of a surprise that so many more Americans are relying on alcohol and prescription anti-depressants to get through their long and lonely days. The drug of choice to allow us to endure our isolation might, of course, be something illegal, but that matters little to no one other than law enforcement or the doctors on duty in the ER. The real issue is simply this: We are becoming a nation alone and forlorn, which is going to have far-reaching political, economic, and social consequences in the decades ahead.
These echoing walls do not afflict only adults. Roughly 25% of children in the U.S. are being raised by a single mother or father, a rate higher than in any developed nation in the world. Aside from the additional stress and financial hardships for the parent that often go along with raising a child alone, we also now have tens of millions of children growing up without the stability that two-parent households have provided for the bulk of human history—a grand and perhaps terrifying American social experiment.
Of course, there are a great many highly credentialed experts in academia who argue vociferously that this is of no real concern because non-traditional family arrangements and government transfer payments are sufficient to provide the psychological and economic stability necessary to nurture these children into happy and productive adult lives. Moreover, as is correctly pointed out, a child is better off with one loving parent rather than two trapped in an unhappy marriage or relationship that ratchets up the level of household tension and can, in some instances, lead to dire consequences. No sensible person would argue that an abusive parent is preferable to an absent one, and a child certainly suffers if that terrible parent remains in their life.
However, only the most foolhardy or ideologically blinkered would argue that a society that excels at producing more and more loneliness and isolation is an entirely healthy one. Skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety among children, adolescents, and adults across our nation are likely attributable—at least in great part—to the loneliness and isolation of so many of our daily lives. In addition, given that the ability to form and maintain personal relationships is a life skill that must be both learned and continually practiced, a solitary existence can rapidly become a self-reinforcing phenomenon that can easily consume one’s life. That lost child of today might be the sad single or lonely senior of tomorrow, and this will cause a cascade of difficulties that will reverberate through our society.
When households and hearts are empty, a great void is left in that individual, one that in many instances is filled with dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviors that become problems for all of us. It cannot be merely a coincidence that nihilistic youth, sexually abusive behavior, and a fraying sense of civility and responsibility become yet more prominent facets of our national culture with each passing year. These problems are, of course, not the result of a single cause, and individual cases vary a great deal, but I believe that the crushing loneliness that pervades our nation is a root cause of much of our national anger and frustration.
We can certainly point to misguided and poorly executed government programs that have fragmented our families and harmed individuals, but the main force that drives us apart is the same culprit that is behind so many other problems in our society: money. With fewer and fewer family farms and small businesses surviving to be passed from parent to child, fewer and fewer families are staying together geographically to nurture a livelihood across generations. Moreover, a rapidly changing globalized economy propelled by mind-boggling advances in the ease and ubiquity of information technology now requires us to chase employment from industry to industry and location to location as never before in our nation’s history. Meanwhile, business starts ups, which are typically family owned and operated, have dropped precipitously over the past 30 to 40 years–and robbed many individuals of a vital anchor to both family and community. Money may, as the song goes, make the world go around, but our need to earn it is turning more and more people around our country into economic gypsies.
In addition, although the heavy hand of the regulatory state certainly dissuades many from opening a new business, it is also likely that local mom and pop operations are fighting to overcome the headwinds of a “click and buy” marketplace that makes it very difficult for many to turn a profit because they are now forced to compete with every business in every corner of our planet. We already know that free-market globalization harms many and helps few, but it might also be turning us into a lonelier and less connected nation at the same time by crushing our locally-owned businesses and reducing the vital community connections they provide. That Amazon box conveniently dropped right on our doorstep might carry with it a hefty hidden surcharge—of human isolation.
We obviously cannot compel togetherness, and there are some individuals who simply prefer to be left to themselves for a variety of reasons. However, few would willingly choose the lonely todays—and even lonelier tomorrows—that have become our peculiar and sorrowful national affliction. Although we tend to mythologize America’s small towns and ignore the insular pathologies that sometimes sprang up in those postcard villages of yore, I suspect that a great many today would quite willingly abandon a text message for an actual conversation, the Internet chat room for a physical companion, and thousands of “friends” on social media for just one person who will give them the love and attention that we all need and deserve.