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.”
The hard evidence for a loneliness epidemic admittedly has some issues. How is loneliness different from depression? How much do living alone and loneliness overlap? Do social scientists know how to compare today’s misery with that in, say, the mid-twentieth century, a period that produced prominent books like The Lonely Crowd? Certainly, some voguish explanations for the crisis should raise skepticism: among the recent suspects are favorite villains like social media, technology, discrimination, genetic bad luck, and neoliberalism.
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. Now, we should take account of how deeply the changes in family life of the past 50-odd years are intertwined with the flagging well-being of so many adults and communities.
Scholars sometimes refer to the domestic earthquake that first rumbled through wealthy countries like the U.S. in the mid-twentieth century as the Second Demographic Transition. (The first transition occurred around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as the high death and birth rates that had been humanity’s default condition since the Neanderthals declined dramatically, leading to rapid population growth.) Mostly associated with the Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe, the SDT (the unfortunately evocative acronym) is a useful framework for understanding the dramatic rupture between the Ozzie and Harriet and Sex and the City eras.