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  • What happens when you can no longer trust that the government safety net or robust civil society will fully be there if you need it? Tweet This
  • At some point, as trust levels decline, family relationships will assert themselves as increasingly important assets needed to navigate this new, lower-trust environment. Tweet This

I landed a job in Chicago after graduation. When I went there to look for an apartment, I was able to stay with my aunt and uncle who conveniently lived in Lincoln Park, the neighborhood that was the premier destination for new college grads at that time.

My Chicago aunt is my mother’s sister. While I definitely knew the family, because we didn’t live in the same place, I’d probably seen her and her family no more than about 10 times in my entire life. Yet despite us not really knowing each other that well, they gave me a key to their house so that I could come and go during the day when they were gone. And only a week or two after I moved to the city, they left town and asked me to stay at their place for a week to house sit and take care of their pets.

I was very struck at the time that people I barely knew were willing to extend complete trust to me because I was part of their family. There’s something about a familial relationship that generates intrinsic default levels of high trust.

In a number of places around the world, extended family relationships are the basis of societal trust and organization. In America, this has traditionally been much less the case. As a nation of settlers, Americans lacked deep, historic family roots in a particular territory. And while extended families sometimes play an important role here—think about the Hatfield-McCoy feud or the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath—America has been much more nuclear family-focused in any case.

Instead of being reliant upon family trust networks, America instead had high general trust overall. While there were always scammers and snake oil salesmen, America was a place where contracts were generally honored (and could be enforced legally when not), fair play was a high social value, people generally followed the rules, and you could rely on basically functional institutions of society. That provided our country with an incredible ability to socially mobilize across family boundaries. It allowed someone like me, for example, to move to New York City as a single person without any family support network because I could rely on the market and institutions to treat me relatively fairly and supply what I needed.

Because we are so used to living in a high trust environment, it’s difficult for Americans to understand the profoundly negative consequences of a low- trust society. A classic study of this is Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which examined the way low trust crippled the ability of poverty-stricken Southern Italian communities to improve themselves. These towns were not just poor. They also had no civil society to speak of—no newspaper, no community groups, no volunteerism, and no concept of public spiritedness at all. There was no way to mobilize for civic improvement.

Banfield postulated that this was related to the low trust ethos of that society that he called amoral familialism, which he described as a social rule saying, “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume all others will do likewise.” The only people one could trust in this society were one’s own immediate family members.

American society is unlikely to ever reach that point, but it has been experiencing a general decline in trust for decades. This has significant potential implications for our familial structures and relationships over the longer term.

While trust in some institutions such as the military is up from the nadirs of yesterday, trust in a wide range of institutions—government, the media, business, and NGOs—has declined significantly, a trend that prompted The Atlanticto say, “Trust is collapsing in America.” Senator Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) Social Capital Project found that many measures of associational life in the U.S. are in decline: fewer marriages, fewer children, more single parents, declining religious participation, less time spent with neighbors and friends.

Part of this decline in civic life may be a decline in trust in the institutions that embody it. For example, why get married when the risk of divorce is so much higher than it was for your grandparents? Declining trust in familial institutions is part of the decline overall trust, hence we see declining trust and a decline in traditional family formation at the same time. (And we see that in a place like Utah, higher trust and more families go together, perhaps because the Mormon Church has developed alternative structures to boost confidence in family life).

Having relationships you can rely on—above all family relationships—becomes more critical as trust declines.

But it’s at the micro level that these changes are experienced in daily life. One out of every four bus riders in New York City doesn’t pay the fare , and the transit agency has been reduced to running ads begging people to pay. The college admissions process has become a hotbed of scams. The Operation Varsity Blues bribery scandal in Southern California that ensnared some celebrities is but one example. Rich people can “legitimately” buy their kid’s way into school with a high enough donation. The Wall Street Journal reported that in some affluent suburban districts, as many as 20% of students are claiming to be disabled in order to get more time or other special benefits in taking the SAT—rates far above average. And just recently in Illinois, it was reported that some families are transferring guardianship of their children to others so the kids can claim to be financially independent and thus rake in thousands of dollars in undeserved financial aid.

This behavior is taking place against a backdrop of institutional dysfunction in which a college credential is effectively mandatory to access higher-paid occupations, tuition is rising rapidly, median wages have stagnated, and student loan debt (which is non-dischargeable even in bankruptcy) has soared. Unsurprisingly, many now view the system as little more than a racket and treat it as such. This downward spiral of negative behaviors happening in many areas is how trust is being slowly drained out of our society.

At some point, as trust levels decline, family relationships will assert themselves as increasingly important assets needed to navigate this new, lower-trust environment. We already see it starting to happen in some ways, as families partially revert to a preindustrial form of family life in which the household is seen as a sort of intergenerational enterprise. Consider the number of political and pundit dynasties like the Bushes or Cuomos that we see these days, for example. For Gen Xers like me, our parents saw it as their job to care for us to 18, and potentially get us through college, then we were out of the nest. Today, we see articles talking about “snowplow parents” who make securing the best possible future for their children, even well into adulthood, their life’s mission. At the other end of life, as people live longer, we increasingly see adult children having to care for aging parents for extended periods of time.

Having relationships you can rely on—above all family relationships—becomes more critical as trust declines. In a fair college admissions system, a high school student could rely on getting in at a college where his record met the standard just by following the published process. In today’s world, teenagers need parents’ active help and resources to figure out how to out-game the other kids’ families.

Similarly, who needs kids if you can rely on high-quality elder care institutions to take care of you when you are old? But what if you can’t trust that those institutions will actually be there or be any good when you need them? What happens if you can’t trust that your underfunded public pension will actually pay out what you think it will? What happens when you can no longer trust that the government safety net or robust civil society will fully be there if you need it?

If trust levels continue to decline, combined with demographic trends that will mean fewer married people and more childless people, this could have negative consequences for many who are forced to navigate a more challenging world with few long-term trusted relationships, particularly as they age. The New York Times’ moving stories of George Bell dying alone in Queens or of a generation dying alone in Japan provide a preview of what we might see more of in the future. Millions of Baby Boomers are growing old alone, and there are already rising numbers of “deaths of despair,” even among Millennials.

The challenge is that with families less stable today than in years past, the family itself is implicated in the decline in trust. As in many areas of society today, the degree of difficulty dial has been turned up on family formation. Getting married and having children today is no guarantee that you will have those strong, lifelong, trusted relationships. As with landing a high paying job today, creating a successful family requires significant intentionality, hard work, and delayed gratification over the course of many years. So, unsurprisingly, we see family success increasingly overlapping with other areas of elite success as another domain of inequality.

Because of these challenges in family formation today, young people need to weigh the likely trust trajectory of the country and their need for trusted familial relationships when they make decisions about how intensely to pursue family formation vs. other life goals. Marriage and children don’t always just happen today, and it’s very easy to miss the runway. In a world of declining trust and more need for trusted family relationships over the full course of our lives, young people need to make sure they are making life decisions in these matters with their eyes wide open.

Aaron M. Renn is a writer in New York City.