Why the Collapse of Intergenerational Living Has Increased Loneliness




Erica Young’s excellent website The Reliants Project pointed us towards an explanatory article that strongly chimed with this founder’s thoughts on the potential vulnerability and fragility of the modern nuclear family. Particularly when buffeted by physical or mental illness, bereavement and other factors that can lead to fracture or breakdown. In The Nuclear Family was a Mistake David Brooks traces the shift from living in close extended families to living in small nuclear families. 

He cites the work of Jane Jacobs, journalist and urbanist, in her 2004 book about North American Society called ‘Dark Age Ahead’. At its core is the idea that families are ‘rigged to fail’ because the structures that once supported the family no longer exist. For millions of people the shift from big and/or extended families to detached nuclear families has been a disaster. It certainly was for my family. 

David Brooks traces a 150+ year journey of how we got here. Though based on America, the forces at work are very relevant to UK society too. 

The extended family might once have comprised parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles and grandparents over three or four generations. Over time, whether to pursue a better home or job, extended families have completely decentralized so that by the 1960s the nuclear family became the norm: typically a father and mother and two children. Multigenerational gatherings first gave way to smaller families spending time together around the TV. More recently, smart devices have usurped even this time together as each person has their own screen. The big interconnected family of siblings and extended kin, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, has fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms. In many sectors of society, nuclear families have further fragmented into single-parent families and, for some people, chaotic families or no families. 

During the period from 1750 to 1900 the numbers of extended families living together about doubled. These extended families offer resilience as more people can share unexpected burdens. If, say, a parent dies, siblings, uncles, aunts and grandparents are there to step in. However, extended families can also be exhausting and allow little privacy or choice as you are forced to be in daily intimate contact with people you didn’t choose. Greater stability comes at the cost of freedom to make your own way in life. By contrast, a detached nuclear family provides an intense set of relationships among, say, four people. If one relationship breaks, there is nothing to cushion the blow: in a nuclear family, the end of the marriage means the end of the family life as previously understood.

As Brooks points out, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as factories opened in big U.S. cities, young men and women left their extended families and rural farm life to pursue the American dream. Finding city life lonely, they started to marry sooner and started nuclear families: the decline of multigenerational cohabiting families mirrors the decline in farm employment. By 1960, 78% of all children were living with their two parents, who were married, and who lived apart from their extended family. The nuclear family seemed to flourish between 1950 to 1965 as divorce rates dropped and fertility rates rose. This was a stark change from the way humanity lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950. And since 1965 the essential fragility of the nuclear family has been revealed: now only one-third of Americans live in a nuclear family (vs. 43% in the UK).

From 1950 to 1965, economic and societal conditions supported the nuclear family. It thrived because disempowered women, often excluded from better quality jobs in the workplace, spent hours as homemakers raising children. Nuclear families, in suburbs, were also more connected to other nuclear families than they are today, forming a support network that operated much like an extended family. The postwar period saw high church attendance, unionisation, social trust, and mass prosperity which all correlate with family cohesion, creating ideal conditions for family stability. 

The bonds started to fray

However, new forces began to stress the nuclear family. From the 1970s, young men’s wages declined, putting pressure on working-class families in particular. Society became more individualistic and more self-oriented with people putting greater value on privacy and autonomy. As feminism rose women started to achieve greater freedoms to live and work as they chose. By the ‘60s and ’70s, there was a cultural switch to putting self before family, a move away from the ‘family first’ attitudes of the 1950s. Baby Boomer culture stressed liberation and the culture of marriage shifted to be more about adult fulfillment than childbearing and rearing. 

As marriage became a love match, staying together made less sense when the love died. The trend of rising divorce and resulting family breakdown began long ago as divorces increased fifteenfold from 1870 to 1920. By 1950 27% of marriages ended in divorce whereas 45% do today (33% in England & Wales). This trend was helped by families generally having fewer relatives around in times of stress to support parents. The result was that between 1970 and 2012 the share of households consisting of married couples with kids halved. In 1960, 72% of Americans were married and only 13% of households were single-person. By 2018, nearly half of American adults were single and the number of single-person households had more than doubled to 28% (41% in the UK).

The concept of marriage is also falling out of favour: in a 2019 survey over 80% of American adults said getting married is not essential to living a fulfilling life. 51% of young Americans (aged 18-34) were living without a romantic partner in 2018, up from 33% in 2004. Only 70% of late-Millennial women are expected to be married by age 40 vs. 90% of Baby Boomers and 80% of Gen X women. (In the UK the number of cohabiting couple families continues to grow faster than married ones rising 26% from 2008 to 2018.)

Americans today also have less family than ever before as the birth rate has halved since 1960. (down 39% in the UK). By 2012, most American family households had no children (87% don’t in the UK). More had pets than children! Only 10% of households had 5 or more people by 2012 half the rate in 1970 (5% in the UK in 2020). The biggest change is in the decline of intergenerational living: only 18% of 65+ Americans lived with their children and grandchildren by 1990 vs. 75% in 1850. 

We could be living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history, as a result of a multiplicity of economic, cultural, and institutional causes. Over the past two generations, people have moved further apart geographically, as a result of which married people are less likely to visit their parents and siblings. This greater self-sufficiency means, in turn, that they are less likely to help with chores or offer emotional support to other family members. 

Affluent, highly educated families can afford to purchase the support that extended families used to provide, which supports children’s development and reduces stress and time commitments for parents. Those further down the income scale cannot. In 1970, there were no great differences in family structure according to income. Now there is a huge divide between the family structures of the rich and poor. Research shows this has increased income inequality by 25%. In 2005, 85% of children from upper-middle-class families lived with both biological parents when the mother was 40 vs. only 30% for working class families. College-educated women ages 22 to 44 have a 78% chance that their first marriage lasts at least 20 years vs. 40% for those with a high-school degree. Among Americans aged 18 to 55 only 26% of the poor and 39% of the working class are currently married. 

People who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan tend to be more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the family than those who grow up in nuclear families who can have a more individualistic mind-set. The result is more family disruption. People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to secure prosperous careers leading, in a vicious circle, to more trouble building stable families, because of financial challenges and other stressors. The children in those families can become more isolated and more traumatized.

Vulnerable people and especially children suffer most from the decline in family support. In 1960, 5% of children were born to unmarried women and 11% lived apart from their father. 50 years later these numbers have risen to 40% and 27%. Now about half of American children spend their childhood with both biological parents, with 20% of young adults having no contact with their father (for some due to the father’s death). America has a higher rate of single-parent households than any other country. 

Though there are stable and loving single-parent families, on average, children of single parents or unmarried cohabiting parents tend to have worse health and mental-health outcomes, less academic success, more behavioural problems, and higher truancy rates than children living with their two married biological parents. Research shows, if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80% chance of climbing out of it. This falls to 50% if you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother. 

Groups that experience greater discrimination tend to have more fragile families. African Americans have suffered more in the era of the detached nuclear family. Nearly half of black families are led by an unmarried single woman (19% of UK black households are made up of a single parent) vs. one-sixth of white families as the high rate of black incarceration results in a shortage of men to become husbands or caretakers of children. 2010 census data shows 25% of black women over 35 have never been married vs 8% of white women. Two-thirds of African American children lived in single-parent families in 2018 versus 25% of white children. Research suggests the differences between white and black family structure explain 30% of the affluence gap between the two groups.

It’s not just the lack of relationships that hurts children; a 2003 study showed 12% of American kids had lived in at least three “parental partnerships” before they turned 15. The transition moments, when an old partner moves out or a new partner moves in are hardest on children. 

Single men have also suffered from fragmented families. Men benefit from male bonding and female companionship in extended families. Today many American males go through childhood without a father and spend a long period of early adulthood - perhaps until their mid 30s - unmarried: these men are less healthy, earn less, and die younger than married men.

Time to tackle a growing crisis 

Women have benefited greatly from the loosening of traditional family structures, and access to education and better paid jobs, giving them more freedom to choose the lives they want. But many are raising their young children without extended family nearby, a lifestyle that can be brutally hard and isolating especially as women still spend significantly more time on housework and child care than men. The result is stressed, tired mothers trying to balance work and parenting with both, inevitably, suffering.

As the social structures that support the family have decayed, the reality is that now only a minority of households are traditional nuclear families. The majority are formed of single parents or never-married parents, others are blended families who come together or cohabiting couples. Without extended families, older Americans have also suffered and levels of loneliness have, unsurprisingly, risen. According to the AARP, a US nonprofit that empowers older people, 35% of Americans over 45 say they are chronically lonely. Many have no close relatives or friends to take care of them. 

These numbers are alarmingly high and while current UK numbers do not look as bad, 5% of UK adults and 13% over 65 are chronically lonely. And where the United States leads, Britain often follows. Population growth projections in the UK, especially in the older demographic, will see these numbers explode. Being in bad health, or having a disability or an underlying health condition, are major risk factors for loneliness. But other risk factors can be just as important, especially those related to family structure such as being a working age adult living alone, being divorced, separated or single.

And so, we can see clearly that the collapse of intergenerational living, and the parallel rise of fragmented family structures, has increased loneliness. We know that chronic loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day due to a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. This is a growing health crisis. With serious implications for both society and the economy.  

We need action to tackle this public health crisis now. The subject of my next blog post….

I am heavily indebted to David Brooks for the thoughts in this blog.