“Loneliness… is just a drag.” — Jimi Hendrix
“Knowing, in a deep-down sense, where you are from contributes not only to your sense of identity but to your sense of community.”
— Vance Packard, A Nation of Strangers
A number of year back I picked up a copy of the Utne to read an article called “The Lonely American.” The article began with some grave statistics, cited for you here:
Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed. Our country is now filled with them.
The second study was the 2000 U.S. census. One of the most remarkable facts to emerge from this census is that one of four households consists of one person only. The number of one-person households has been increasing steadily since 1940, when they accounted for roughly 7 percent of households. Today, there are more people living alone than at any point in U.S. history. Placing the census data and the GSS side by side, the evidence that this country is in the midst of a major social change is overwhelming.
The article is excerpted from the book of the same name by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, whose aim appears to be to show how the American lifestyle leads to social isolation.They note that socializing is not the priority it ought to be in our culture. They cite the frenetic pace of life driven by materialistic pursuits as part of the problem. They also note that social isolation is damaging to both health and ecology, though I didn’t make the full connection on this last assertion.
What I found absent in the article, and hope it is not deliberately ignored in the book, was any reference to the groundbreaking work by Vance Packard on this topic, A Nation of Strangers.
Olds and Schwartz may be correctly sounding alarm bells regarding isolation, but what they’re seeing is the fruit of what Packard cited more than fifty years ago. In his 1962 analysis, “Personal isolation is becoming a major social fact of our time. A great many people are disturbed by the feeling that they are rootless or increasingly anonymous, that they are living in a continually changing environment where there is little sense of community.”
Before citing more from Packard, though, it could be that this is simply the acidity of modernity. Existential philosophers like Camus and Sartre observed this “alienation and despair” as an isolating phenomenon which for many is the human condition in our Western world. The problem with the “existential hero” is that he can’t connect, and thus claims it noble to stand alone.The reality is that we weren’t created to stand alone. Families, communities, tribes, clans, associations, friends… we need them because life is hard. And we’re not gods, we’re mortals who have a lot of hard things to deal with from time to time.
One of the things I remember most vividly from Packard’s book was that people are more mobile in our modern (Fifties/Sixties, USA) society than ever before. With the free-wheeling lifestyle glorified in books like Kerouac’s On the Road, young people left their stifling rural communities in droves and went to the big city where the lights are bright on Broadway.
The critically acclaimed Midnight Cowboy (Jon Voigt, Dustin Hoffman) portrayed one pair of lost souls in this exodus. And the theme song by Nilsson says it all, “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word their saying.” Seeker Joe Buck finds himself alone in a big world, and it’s a hard world.
But Packard cited other causes for this rootlessness, much of it work related. In the course of my life I’ve been aware too that military kids and preachers’ kids are often the victims of mobile lifestyles that make it challenging to develop connections. It’s almost a byword now to say, rather flippantly, you have to go where the jobs are.
For more on Packard, and an interesting application of Packard’s observations to the Red States / Blue States divide, check out this perspective by the Brothers Judd.