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We will all become boring
Loneliness, liberalism, and the traditional family
NB: I’m going to be publishing occasional Substack essays – both free and paywalled – alongside the MMM podcast: weekly bonus episodes for founding members plus weekly or bi-weekly interviews. I’ve now started work on my next book, The Case For Having Kids, and will be using these essays as a drawing board, to work through ideas and elicit feedback.
There has never been a more solitary period in human history. In Britain, the number of people living alone has doubled since 1974 and now represents approximately one fifth of the adult population. In the United States, the figure is approaching 30%. In Sweden, 48% of households consist of a single adult living alone.1
This is in part a consequence of medical technology extending our lifespans (although that trend has now been thrown into reverse). It’s also a consequence of liberalism: delayed marriage, high rates of divorce, and individuals having more choice over their living arrangements as a consequence of greater social freedom more generally.
Jon Lawrence, Professor of Modern British History at the University of Exeter, is among those historians who rejects the pessimistic account of loneliness as an inevitable consequence of liberal individualism, writing of life in twenty-first century Britain:
Contrary to many preconceptions, most people’s lives are socially more connected today than 70 years ago. Most people have more leisure time, more mobility, more ways to communicate and more space (and inclination) to entertain each other at home, as well as more money to socialise outside the home. Community does not just survive, it flourishes, but because it often takes new forms – less localised, less formal – it is too swiftly dismissed by pessimistic social commentators fixated on an idealised model of true community: place-based and face-to-face like the pre-modern village.2
Lawrence is partly right here, although what he’s really describing is not greater social connection, but rather a culture that permits much greater optionality in socialising. For instance, new transport and communication technology means that I no longer have to hang out only with the other mums who live within walking distance of my house – I can travel to see other mum friends on the other side of the city, or talk to friends on the phone or on group chats (the joy of my based mum group chats!)
This kind of optionality is not available to people living in communities built on extended family networks, which were historically the norm in the West, along with everywhere else. There is much historical controversy over when exactly British people – including the British diaspora in North America and elsewhere – began to reject the pre-modern kinship system that was common to both agrarians and hunter gatherers. Some historians suggest this began as early as the 13th century,3 others much later.
Regardless of when exactly it began, this process is now almost entirely complete, not only in Britain – the birthplace of liberal individualism – but throughout the rich world. Nevertheless, it took many centuries, and there were pockets of British society that resisted the dissolution of the extended family for a long time.
For instance, the historical consensus seems to be that the tight-knit traditional British working class urban community – familiar to us from the likes of Coronation Street – was a real thing, a phenomenon of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that began to disintegrate after the Second World War. People lived close to their relatives,4 offered various kinds of mutual aid to each other, and although there was crime of some kinds – not least, domestic violence – these were generally high trust communities in which people felt safe leaving their doors unlocked5 and people really did look out for one another.
So why did these tight-knit communities fall apart? Historian Marc Brodie suggests that it comes down to simple economics: people got richer. As Brodie writes,
The mutual help and cooperation seen as fundamental to these communities may have been in large part instrumentalist in nature. What appeared to be close, friendly relationships and freely given reciprocal aid seemed to mostly vanish as soon as economic circumstances improved and the poor no longer needed to rely upon each other for simple survival.6
Some individuals clearly dislike communitarian cultures and will happily escape them as soon as they have the economic means. In his classic study of English working class culture, The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart writes of a traditional way of life that can be stifling for an introverted intellectual like the young Hoggart, brought up in a working class area of Leeds in the 1920s and 1930s. In an intensely communitarian culture, slinking away to read a book, or just to be alone, is frequently looked on with suspicion, and nosy and gossipy neighbours can make life miserable for anyone who comes across as odd.
Remember that the gossipy neighbours had real power in the old system. People protected their local reputations carefully, in large part because they depended on their reputations in order to secure employment and credit locally. It was common practice, for instance, for the local grocer or butcher to offer credit to a family suffering through a lean week, if – and only if – he could be sure of repayment in better times. Maintaining a respectable reputation was therefore of vital importance. Hence the trope of the working class woman scrubbing her front step (something I have never done! Our front step is filthy!), because the appearance of your house frontage told your neighbours something important about your conscientiousness.
There were obviously examples of this system producing cruel and tragic outcomes, since neighbours can be horrible to one another (humans can be horrible to one another). But it’s also worth reflecting on the trade-offs inherent to our new system of state welfare, which does away with the emphasis on local reputation, and therefore removes an important incentive to behave pro-socially. Megan McArdle writes well on this problem:
The description of [American] public housing in the fifties is shocking to anyone who's spent any time in modern public housing. Big item on the agenda at the tenant's meeting: housewives, don't shake your dustcloths out of the windows--other wives don't want your dirt in their apartment! Men, if you wear heavy work boots, please don't walk on the lawns until you can change into lighter shoes, as it damages the grass! (Descriptions taken from the invaluable book, The Inheritance, about the transition of the white working class from Democrat to Republican.) Needless to say, if those same housing projects could today find a majority of tenants who reliably dusted, or worked, they would be thrilled.
Chesterton’s fence triumphant, as ever.
I’d say that the consistent pattern we see across time and place is this: people long for privacy and autonomy during some periods of their lives. Specifically, able-bodied and childless young adults often crave distance from their extended families, and will often go to great lengths to secure it. During that stage of one’s life, communitarianism is incredibly annoying. As one of the strongest, most leisured, and most productive members of your extended family, people will frequently call upon you to share your bounty with them in various ways.
For young women, that usually means helping with childcare, eldercare, and domestic work, while young men are expected to share their wages with a seemingly endless parade of relatives, all sticking out expectant hands. On the tube into the library this morning, I sat opposite an ad for a tech platform that allows migrants to send money home to their families in the Third World, where a pre-modern style of communitarianism still persists. I thought of this essay by Theodore Dalrymple on his time spent working as a doctor in Rhodesia:
Unlike in South Africa, where salaries were paid according to a racial hierarchy (whites first, Indians and coloured second, Africans last), salaries in Rhodesia were equal for blacks and whites doing the same job… [But] the young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfil. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe, and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family.
It’s hardly surprising that these young people would flex against such a culture. But in doing so, they typically forget that they’re sure to end up on the other side of the transaction at some stage in their lives. To quote myself (sorry) in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution:
In a natural human life cycle, we begin as dependent babies, spend a very brief period as relatively independent young adults, before caring for our own dependent children, and then ultimately ending our lives in what Shakespeare called our “second childishness.” Modern contraception has allowed us to artificially stretch out that young adult stage, giving the illusion that independence is our permanent state. But it isn’t – it’s nothing more than a blip, which some of us will never experience at all.
And it’s not just a matter of physical capacity. Another form of social capital that will likely wax and wane over the course of your life is how much fun you are. The example of this I like to give comes from the very charming TV series Derry Girls, set in a working class family in 1990s Derry. The show revolves around a group of teenage girls who are obsessed with their own petty dramas, as teenagers usually are. One of the recurrent characters is a boring old bloke called Uncle Colm. The girls roll their eyes at Uncle Colm and can’t understand why they have to spend time with him. The adults also find him tedious, but nevertheless continue to invite him along to family events, because their culture is still traditional enough to regard this intra-familial hospitality as an obligation. The girls don’t think about this (why would they?), but the truth is that if Uncle Colm wasn’t invited to family Sunday dinners he wouldn’t be invited to anything at all. No one would choose to spend their time with him.
Friends, chances are that we will all one day be as boring as Uncle Colm, perhaps sooner rather than later. After all, elderly people with dementia are hardly a laugh and a half. Liberal individualism is great for people when they don’t depend on others. It’s not so great when they do.
There are obviously upsides to liberal individualism, as with all influential ideologies (why else would people adopt them?). Personal freedom is great for the young, fit, and eccentric, not only because it permits them to ‘live their best lives’, but also because it allows them to create wealth. British people dominated the world for more than 300 years in part because so many British people were willing to abandon their extended families and cross oceans and continents, with the expectation that they would never return home. Economic and social liberalism go hand in hand (or are, as Mary Harrington likes to say, ‘two cheeks of the same arse’) because the latter enables the former. You need to be maximally mobile, open-minded, and self-interested if you’re going to prioritise money making. And those ambitious individualists then go on to build businesses and create technologies that benefit other people. A little bit of wealth allows such people to escape the pre-modern village, and by doing so they create much more wealth. Wealth creation is a good thing.
But there is a trade off. At a societal level, we can be rich, or we can be communitarian. I don’t think we can be both – at least, not for long. The Baby Boomers came closest to enjoying both simultaneously, but only because they were born during an ideological changing of the guard. They enjoyed the high trust, family-centric culture cultivated by their parents and grandparents, and then got to enjoy the youthful rejection of all of that culture’s downsides.
But that’s a trick that can only be pulled once. Historian (and Baby Boomer) Jon Lawrence is kidding himself when he tries to have it both ways:
[W]e should read the widespread nostalgia for community as powerful evidence that people want to find a way to reconcile personal freedom – the right not to have to conform to the expectations of strangers (or indeed of family) – with a deeper sense of social connection.7
I have bad news on this front: those things are irreconcilable. You cannot promote a culture of optionality, and then also expect people to choose you when you become a dull and onerous option. You cannot buy solitude when it suits you, and then try and buy back company when it does not, because company of the sincere and intimate kind cannot be bought.
On this point, Sam Kriss has recently published a remarkable essay on the vast and expanding retirement conurbation in Florida known as The Villages. There is much to be said on the centrality of private pensions to the American (and therefore global) economy that Kriss describes, but I want to focus here on his analysis of the Baby Boomer ideology of hyper-individualism – the ideology that finally killed the extended family stone dead in the twentieth century.
Kriss writes of a a city-sized playground of golf courses, restaurants, and swimming pools inhabited entirely by American Baby Boomers, as far removed from the pre-modern kinship system as one can imagine:
The message of The Villages is this: that the true purpose of human life is to have fun, to drink and play golf, and you can only really experience the true purpose of human life once you’ve retired: when you’ve nothing left to do but exist. You are not old, because age is just a number. You do not need to be looked after. What you need is to start living your best life. When they were young, the Baby Boomers broke apart the multi-generational community: untempered youth, wild youth leading itself towards its own ends. Now, they’re doing it again. They have absconded from their duty as old people, which is to be the link between the future and the past—because the world doesn’t have a past anymore, and precious little future either. You are suspended in an infinite present. You still wear blue jeans. You will never die.
These Baby Boomers escaped the extended family when it suited them to do so, and some of them are still rich enough to find pleasure in what liberal individualism insists is the “true purpose of human life”: that is, their leisure time, free from unwanted social obligations. For these lucky few, there are still just enough migrant workers to provide cheap care, and the state pension is still arriving reliably in their bank accounts every month, courtesy of working age tax payers. In a material sense, they don’t need the traditional family. Of course this will not be true for future generations, given that the pyramid scheme that is the welfare state is starting to collapse. That’s what my next book, The Case For Having Kids, is all about.
But the portrait Kriss paints of The Villages is still very bleak, despite its material abundance. There is a lot of desperate loneliness and listlessness among the generation who most passionately bought into the dream of freedom:
There are no cemeteries in The Villages. The ambulances are unmarked; so are the hearses. Nobody talks about the fact that every few weeks, a vaguely familiar face vanishes from the pickleball court. The most depressing thing I read about The Villages came from someone who’d worked in one of its hospices. By the time the Villagers die, many of them are broke. They’ve spent their pensions on margaritas and golf carts. Hospice care is expensive, so their homes are sold while they’re still dying, and someone like [estate agent] Jason will move some other retiree right in, another lonely person eager to start having fun. Most of the people who die in The Villages end up being cremated. This pleasure-machine, built to delight you with cheap drinks and dancing every night, also systematically burns stacks upon stacks of dead bodies. People who will have no graves to visit.
If we’re entering an era of post-affluence – and I’m sorry to say that we probably are – we can expect the decline of The Villages and the rise of actual villages: local networks of social obligation that provide mutual support when people cannot rely on the state’s surplus. It’s how people have lived for most of human history, after all. But reinventing those systems is likely to prove hard, and it will carry costs. If the Baby Boomers enjoyed a fun kind of changing of the guard, young people today are likely to experience the same process in reverse: declining affluence, combined with shredded social capital. Loneliness and poverty.
But there’s a way through for any group capable of reinventing what the Medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun called ‘asabiyyah’: literally, family binding, otherwise understood as social cohesion and shared purpose. A culture rich in asabiyyah places demands on the most able, and it offers little in the way of swimming pools and golf courses. But it also takes the long view of human interdependency, reasoning that a culture cannot survive for long if it destroys traditional institutions in a great progressive bonfire of the vanities. It’s fun to prioritise optionality when you’re young. But all of us, eventually, will become the old, sick, boring option.
1 p.244, Jon Lawrence ‘Individualism and Community in Historical Perspective’ (chapter in Austerity, Community Action, and the Future of Citizenship in Europe)
2 p.240, Jon Lawrence ‘Individualism and Community in Historical Perspective’ (chapter in Austerity, Community Action, and the Future of Citizenship in Europe)
3 Macfarlane, A. (1978). The origins of English individualism : The family, property and social transition / Alan Macfarlane. Oxford: Blackwell.
4 Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180
5 Sarah Williams, Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark, c.1880-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.37
6 p.17, Brodie, Marc. Neighbours, Distrust, and the State : What the Poorer Working Class in Britain Felt About Government and Each Other, 1860s to 1930s. First edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Print.
7 p.243, Jon Lawrence ‘Individualism and Community in Historical Perspective’ (chapter in Austerity, Community Action, and the Future of Citizenship in Europe)