Ireland today is immensely more prosperous than when I was a child but, unfortunately, rising GDP has not correlated with a rise in happiness. The converse in fact, happiness and mental health indices are gradually worsening worldwide (reviewed by Mark Rice-Oxley in The Guardian). And in a recent USI survey one third of Irish third-level students reported that they suffer from depression and anxiety.
What is driving this rise in mental fragility? Inequality, social isolation and sedentary lifestyles have been proposed as contributory factors. But American author and social critic Mary Eberstadt argues cogently in her latest book – Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (Templeton Press, 2019) – that erosion of the traditional family is one primary cause.
Until recent times the standard ambition for most people was to marry, have children and remain together as a family unit. Some couples decided to have no children, though this was rare. But the sexual revolution, beginning in the 1960s, including contraception, acceptance of sexual relations outside conventional heterosexual marriage, abortion, divorce etc, changed all that.
Today marriage is in decline (reviewed by S Minz in Psychology Today, March 7th, 2015), serial monogamy is common, childless families and fatherless families are common and birth rates in the developed world are significantly below population replacement rates.
Eberstadt argues that humans were naturally selected over thousands of years for traditional family forms of socialisation that no longer exist for many people and that this is one primary cause of many current problems. In the ubiquitous traditional family of the past a child grew up embedded in a stable matrix of close and caring relatives – father, mother, siblings, grandparents and a long list of aunts, uncles and cousins. A child knew who he/she was.
All this has changed significantly, weakening peoples’ sense of identity and contributing to a modern surge in loneliness and depression. Loneliness is sad in itself but also has knock-on health implications. Eberstadt quotes studies identifying causal links between loneliness and stress, overeating, heart disease and immune-system dysfunction.
Loneliness is a new form of social poverty and is most evident in the richest countries. Eberstadt quotes a 2018 Cigna poll reporting that almost half of all Americans “sometimes or always” feel alone. The age group 18 to 22 is the loneliest sector of all.
Japan is a striking example of this phenomenon. Childlessness is very common and about 4,000 Japanese people die alone ("lonely deaths") annually without being discovered until the smell of their decomposition alerts neighbours. Lonely deaths have given rise to a new industry in Japan that cleans apartments after these lonely deaths.
Society has become atomised with many people feeling they are adrift
Closer to home, an article in Der Spiegel Online (Jan 10th, 2013) informs us that 25 per cent of Germans over the age of 70 get fewer than one visit per month from family or friends and almost 10 per cent get no visits at all.
It is not surprising that abrupt dissolution of family bonds we were immersed in for so long would have serious consequences. Some consequences have been evident for a long time, eg the well-documented link between fatherless homes and increased risk of criminality, psychiatric illness, truancy etc.
Eberstadt also credits the dissolution of the traditional family with the current rise of emotionally-charged identity politics. Society has become atomised with many people feeling they are adrift. Identifying with an identity group suffering from a grievance serves the function of a surrogate family.
Eberstadt is pessimistic that anything will be done about this problem. The culture and practices that have weakened traditional family structures are cornerstone achievements of the liberal agenda that will never be reversed voluntarily – no-fault divorce, paid surrogacy, erotic freedom, abortion on demand, dismissal of traditional moral codes, acceptance of pornography etc.
Of course all of this is not to deny that many problems existed when the traditional family was maximally strong, nor that many of these problems have more recently been solved/ameliorated, eg womens’ rights, universal access to all educational levels, recognition of/reparation for past social abuses, and so on.
And there is undoubtedly room for debate as to what fraction of the increasing mental fragility is attributable to the weakening of the traditional family. But there surely can be little doubt that dissolving our primordial family ties is causing some problems.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC