The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”
Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category. The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.
The compelling findings about loneliness and isolation and the ramifications for American society prompted numerous publications and talk shows to focus on the prevalence of loneliness in America. It is no accident that the social interaction trend declined sharply in the mid-1960s when “doing your own thing” became vogue and “sexual freedom” separated the physical act of sex from the embrace of an emotional attachment and/or a romantic relationship. Rabbi Daniel Lapin suggests that “we are raising a generation of children who are orphans in time.” He laments that today’s generation of young people is “incapable of integrating their past and their future … [living] instinctively in an almost animal-like fashion only in the present.” He notes that it is virtually impossible, then, to connect time and space in a way that enables them to build their “present.” Thus, they wander aimlessly about without connections — physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Rather than acknowledge family breakdown, some commentators blame the increase in social isolation on television. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam cited a dramatic increase in television watching — five percent of American households had televisions in 1950 compared with 95 percent in 1970. Now, many homes have a TV in every room. Putnam provides further reasons for the fragmentation of the family circle and disintegration of family life since the 1960s: Families have 60 percent fewer family picnics and 40 percent fewer family dinners.