In the past few years, evidence has mounted of widespread loneliness in the U.S., which has been connected to alarming rates of suicide and drug addiction, among much else. To Kay Hymowitz, there is overwhelming reason to believe that behind the loneliness epidemic are the massive social changes that began in the middle of the last century—what sociologists term the Second Demographic Transition (SDT)—bringing about lower fertility, less marriage, more births out of wedlock, and more divorce. She writes:
Postwar baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were Generation Zero for the SDT in the United States. Now shuffling their way into their sixties and seventies, older boomers give a glimpse of the long-term downside of the post-SDT culture. If we had to pick just one word to describe it, “lonely” would do. In widely quoted research, . . . Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis uncovered a recent surge in the number of “kinless” older adults. Lower fertility translates into fewer siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, whether for hospital visits or emergency contacts.
A jump in the number of never-married and divorced adults is also part of the kinlessness story. [Verdery and Margolis] don’t mention cohabitation, but it’s a key ingredient in the rise of kinlessness. Superficially, cohabitation looks roughly equivalent to marriage; couples live together as “husband and wife,” sharing a bed, living space, meals, and, in many cases, children, but without the ring and city-hall certificate. In reality, especially in the U.S., shacking up is a kind of marriage-lite that has added to the tenuousness of post-transition relations. Cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than marrieds. Separated, cohabiting fathers are more likely to withdraw from their kids’ lives than previously married and divorced dads, who are already more unreliable than married dads still in the house. . . .
In translating family formation into a strictly private matter, the SDT whistled past a critical fact of our history—namely, that kinship has been the most powerful glue of human groups since Homo sapiens first discovered the mother-in-law. . . . [T]hough marriage has shape-shifted over the centuries and across cultures, it has always defined those people—spouses, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, in-laws—to whom we owe special attention and mutual protection. That would explain why cohabiting couples, even those with children, don’t have the same support from extended family as married couples with children. Marriage creates kin; cohabitation does not.