Living Alone: The Rise of Capitalism and the Decline of Families

This article was originally published on ZCommunications.

Three books. Three eye-opening accounts of tectonic shifts in American life. And one extraordinary analysis of the intimate connections between the new economy, the political power structure and the historic rise of one-person households.

Tectonic shifts are changes in the very foundations of the earth. The books I review illustrate these shifts in the ways that Americans manage their personal lives: how we live day to day, with whom we live and what kinds of relationships we have.

Three recent widely-acclaimed books track changes in America's personal life. They are "Going Solo," (Eric Klinenberg, New York: The Penguin Press, 2012); "The Outsourced Self," (Arlie Russell Hochschild, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012); and "Coming Apart," (Charles Murray, New York: Crown Forum-Random House, 2012).

None of the three describe the duet danced between the changes they astutely observe and the new US economy and political power structure. I will try to do that here.

Going Solo

"Going Solo" describes the meteoric rise of people choosing to live alone. Today – for the first time since the census began counting in 1880 – more than half of American adults are single. They are tied with childless couples for the distinction of being the most predominant residential type, more numerous than nuclear families with children, multigenerational families, roommate homes or group homes. Manhattan alone is home to a million people whom Klinenberg calls "singletons," living alone in one-person dwellings. Manhattan is typical of US and European cities. The people living solo are not all old widows and widowers. For the first time in recorded US history, the majority of people that the census refers to as of "prime marriageable age" – 18 to 34 years old – are unmarried and live alone. For younger Americans this does not feel like a radical change. For older Americans it is a sea change.

Klinenberg is enthusiastic about this development. He mentions, but does not focus on, its wildly different outcomes for people who do and do not have money. For the affluent top 20 percent, living solo can be a refuge. For the employed professional, it can deliver respite from the constant demands of stressful work lives. It is now common knowledge that the 8-hour day is lost in America and folks need to escape from employers.

Cell phones and job precarity make workers available at all hours. Wealthy "singletons" can work until late at night and then go to bars or restaurants with their fellow workers and spend money and time decompressing before they return to the peace of their single dwellings. On weekends, when they have discretionary time, they can entertain themselves through their personal computers or with the thousands of opportunities a city can provide for those who can pay. Older, affluent solo dwellers who are either employed or retired can go to the theater or expensive films, dinners out, etc.

If they are at home, social media on their computers can keep them somewhat connected. In short, they can connect on their own schedules in ways that having money facilitates. If they are old and infirm and in the 10 percent to 20 percent of privileged Americans, they can hire caretakers who accompany them and make socializing and cultural events possible. They can stay more connected on their own terms.

Not so with the 80 percent of youth who also work – or try to work – long hours. They cannot afford to go out and spend money and often cannot afford computers. Younger people can find each other and hang out in less safe environments where the police may bother them for loitering. Elderly poor singletons are often stuck in isolating and dangerous single-room-occupancy hotels. They often live in poor and dangerous neighborhoods where they cannot feel safe enough to sit outside or go to a local park if there is one. They cannot afford computers or lessons in how to use them. Lines for computer access at the public library are long and library hours are cut. If seniors are in the 80 percent who cannot afford sufficient paid care, and do not have devoted local children, friends or relatives, they are isolated and often depressed. This is the poor neglected side of US single life, or death as the case may be.

Why is This Tectonic Shift Happening Now? A Question Untouched in "Going Solo"

Part of the glue that held relationships together in the past was a strict division of gender roles. Closely related was the segregation of employment opportunities. Another part was the unavailability of reliable, safe birth control and abortion, which left many women and children dependent on the male wage. Family wages were almost always unavailable for women and minority men. Their lives were considerably harder. Full or high employment in a scarce labor market reserved for white men included financial rewards for being white and being male.

That began to change in the 1970s. Advanced international communications systems, computer technology and weak unions allowed corporate outsourcing to export US jobs. Jobs at home shifted to social service jobs which are harder to outsource. Social service jobs are lower paid and tend to be female jobs. At the same time, women and minority rights movements expanded their labor opportunities. Capitalists no longer had to give white men wage supplements for jobs reserved for them. Capitalists replaced white men with both low wage people from Third World nations and cheaper minority and female labor in the US.

Without their family wages, white men could no longer support their wives' full time labor as dependent household servants, sex mates and child-care providers. Families needed more money. Millions of white women joined their minority sisters in the labor force. Some were driven by their own wish for fulfillment. Most were driven by economic necessity. With women's changed position as wage-earners, the economic backbone of gender-segregated families began to break.

The 1970s also brought the advent of the LGBTQ movement which has contributed to changes in gender stereotypes. LGBTQ relationships have their own dynamics. Gender role stereotypes have not been as rigid and limiting in LGBTQ relationships as they were, and often are, in heterosexual relationships.

LGBTQ relationships have been both benefitted and also injured by a society in which they were not given the legitimacy accorded straight relationships. On the one hand this has made it harder for LGBTQ couples to sustain long-term relationships. On the other hand, LGBTQ long-term couples tend to be happier in their relationships.

In the 1970s and thereafter, LGBTQ, feminist and civil rights ideology permeated the society and entered American homes. Women claimed more autonomy and respect. However, heterosexual couples and families did not often develop collective communal styles of relationships to match their shared roles at work. Housework and childcare were and are still overwhelmingly performed by women in hetero families.

Old-style hetero relationships consist of a now impossible level of male responsibility, an unshared financial burden and male dominance combined with an equally impossible burden of female housework, combined with childcare, and jobs outside of the home. Women had a liberation movement to help us escape from our limited lives in household labor and it is women who have dramatically reversed our role andrejected marriage.

Men did and do not have a movement to help them appreciate the new intimacy possible in egalitarian couple relationships. Traditional men often expect their wives to fulfill traditional roles and also to work outside the home. Many men demand extra emotional labor to soothe male egos wounded by lost financial dominance. Former hierarchical models of relationships are broken, and new communal models are less available, especially for blue collar heterosexual men who are the hardest hit by our changed economy. There are no measures for communal relationships. However, there is a statistical record of men opting out of shared household labor and childcare.

Living alone may seem preferable to struggles that neither partner in the relationship can understand, let alone resolve. The same kind of communal sharing and mutually empowering economic, intellectual, social and economic equality that Left movements advocated for the economy are needed in the home, where they are unavailable. Living alone looks more desirable than struggling together to achieve what neither understands. This too is relevant to the mass movement of "going solo."

There is an additional factor. Many young people cannot find mates. US society has become increasingly isolated. Putnam documents the incredible isolation of current US society. ,

The difficulty of finding a partner is such a fact of US life, that two new sitcoms on the subject, "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate" will appear this fall on Fox TV

Although many young people look for partners on the Internet, the Internet serves to conceal as well as reveal those who advertise themselves, and many find it painfully inadequate.

Between the difficulties in meeting a partner and the confusion and pain of changed gender expectations, many remain single.


Arlie Russell Hochschild writes about another new phenomenon, one predominantly experienced by what I would call the top 20 percent of the US population who can afford to pay for personal services Hochschild presents the wide variety of personal services one can buy if one has the means. She points out that this is indeed a capitalist phenomenon happening in the context of frantic work schedules and market solutions. People hire children's birthday party coordinators, and professional baby naming services. They go to baby farms in India to hire baby bearers who carry US parents' fertilized eggs to maturity.

Employed, educated, well-paid couples pay for substitutes in personal arenas of life. Turning to "professionals" who manage and fulfill their personal obligations – manage and decorate and clean their homes, birth their babies, etc. – has negative consequences that are not factored into the equation.

Wealthier Americans lose touch with their families and with their ability to provide meaningful services for themselves and those they love. It is unfair to Arlie's excellent work to fault her for not writing a different book, however another book needs to be written about the consequences for those whose work schedules are crippling their personal lives and who cannot afford to outsource what were the labors of love. They are suffering terribly. They have no recourse to trained, paid professionals to clean their homes, make their meals, provide quality care and afterschool educational opportunities for their children, take care of their aging parents, etc. While the 80 percent are overworked, their old parents and their children suffer without help.

Hochschild's book implicitly and explicitly criticizes the capitalist idea that money can and will not only replace, but provide a better alternative to personal time and effort and the thousand knowledges that can come with caring for children, creating a birthday party on which children work with parents, going through a pregnancy, creating a meal together — ad infinitum.

This excellent book points the way to crucial research that needs to be done. An important question is: What are the knowledges that come from personal care around intimate moments and shared time and experience? What is learned is often in the realm of women's emotional labor in the home. Hochschild is the founder and a primary explorer of the term "emotional labor," a huge contribution.

In spite of her pioneering, and crucial work, the skills and powerful knowledges learned by both the givers and receivers of emotional labor have never been delineated. They are part of what has been women's labor, but since that labor is neither defined nor explicitly valued, they are not financially rewarded. The overwhelming majority of women's paid labor is in low pay, pink collar jobs as servers, receptionists, secretaries, child care workers, nurses, nurses' aides – jobs that require emotional labor.

Perhaps if the skills employed in emotional labor were enumerated and compensated, all work that requires emotional labor, including the unpaid work of mothers, might be rewarded by our economy instead of punished with lower salaries and less job mobility.

The implicit message of Hochschild's book is a critique of capitalist values that largely ignore the fundamental work of sustaining people's lives in favor of work that directly produces profit. The drive for profit produces endless personal services sold to wealthier over-committed people. At the same time I must point out that those services for pay are not there for the majority of Americans who cannot pay. Low income, hardworking parents and their families cannot afford the basic services that would allow their families to enjoy a decent quality of life. The drive for profit, combined with the least time off in the industrial world, robs all of the American people of time off to care for, and fully enjoy, their families. Although poor working families suffer most, all economic strata are deprived.

"Coming Apart"

Murray's book, "Coming Apart," is very much like Patrick Moynihan's famous study of the African-American family, "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action," (1965) – often referred to as the "Moynihan Report."

Moynihan blamed the dysfunction and male absence in the African-American family on poor work habits, immorality and pathology. In parallel fashion, Murray blames the disintegration of the white working class family on its immorality, loss of religious belief, laziness and lack of discipline. Murray does not imagine any social, economic or political development that may have contributed to causing this behavior, which is a mass social phenomenon.

"Coming Apart" has received accolades from the media and the press. It shifts the problems of US capitalism on to the shoulders of its victims. Murray and his fans disregard the fact that just as African-American men in the US were denied family wages, which made it near impossible to support families, now white working class men in parallel fashion have lost the family wages that supported their families. Blue collar males now join their minority brothers and suffer low wages, mass precarity, unemployment or under-employment and the ego wounds that accompany the inability to support a family.

What has changed is not the sudden laziness or immorality of blue collar men, but US capitalism. Our economy has radically shifted since the 1970s when the majority of white families consisted of wage-earning males and dependent wives and children.

That was not a family form recommended by this author. Its stability was paid for with women's economic dependence and subordination and men's onerous financial burden. Its logic often led to marriages built on the financial dependency of women and the guilt of men, marriages which were often resigned and bitter. It polarized male and female gender roles and obstructed the deep, respectful, intimate friendship between men and women that can happen among sharing equals.

What Happened: A Summary

Beginning in the 1970s, computers reached a level of sophistication that allowed them to accomplish several goals favorable to large capitalist firms. Computers could and did replace millions of jobs. In just one of infinite examples, computer scanners replaced jobs in taking inventory in retail establishments. Bar codes knocked out millions of jobs.

Advanced telecommunications allowed capitalists to outsource US jobs to Third World workers from China, Bangladesh, etc., whose meager salaries and frightening working conditions were reinforced by police states.

Our compromised unions did not organize to prevent outsourcing. US middle class prosperity was based on wages that were raised in tandem with profits. Capitalists froze wages. Capitalists no longer had to pay extra for American workers in general, and white male workers in particular. They exported jobs abroad, and hired lower paid women and minorities at home.

Financial necessity forced the mass of US women into the labor force. That in turn created extra expenditures for prepared food, cleaning, child care, etc. to substitute for what had been women's unpaid labors at home. Americans did not enjoy the vacation time, free child care, free university education and free medical care that their socialist compatriots had fought for and won in Europe. All were additional costs borne by individual families.

Men could not bear those costs and support their families on frozen wages. The hegemony of white men was struck a blow. The white middle class was decimated.

 The economic model of the wage-earning male and dependent wife and children was finished.

New egalitarian models of relationships were present in family therapy ideology and feminism, however they did not and do not dominate the US romantic landscape.

The social and economic conditions of existence that might have supported egalitarian relationships of equal partners were, and are, not in place. There was and is no free universal child care, health care, maternity and paternity leave, family leave, job security or guaranteed vacation time. Women struggle with double shifts of work in both the marketplace and at home.

Men feel belittled, angry and entitled to more emotional succor to compensate for the financial blows they receive in their work lives. Children are neglected and needy. They demand more time and energy, primarily from their exhausted mothers. Women are deserting men who can no longer provide for their families and yet expect double shifts from their wives. Blue collar marriages blow apart at an unprecedented rate.

The people whose marriages last longer are in the privileged and professional sectors – people who can outsource tasks of domestic and personal life to maids, nannies, daycare and after school programs, summer and vacation camps, restaurants,takeout food, professional laundries, etc.

Outsourcing of tasks deprives well-to-do families of intimate family activities and leaves the majority, who cannot afford such extensive services, both deprived and wanting.

Living solo appeals to millions. The demands of relationships, the rules and expectations of which have changed, are too much to manage. Living alone is the fastest-growing form of household.

Millions of men who have been denied their family wages find refuge for male domination in right-wing anti-woman politics and fundamentalist and Catholic religions with their emphasis on denying women's independence through anti-abortion and anti-birth control movements, opposing equal wages for women and denying support for raped and battered women.

Other men seek to take back their male power through guns. (None of the explosion of mass killings have been committed by women.) Millions more seek power in heterosexual pornography in which women are portrayed as inviting sexual degradation

On the other side, millions endorse more support for expanding public services that support families, from schools, food stamps and school lunches to daycare or universal health care.

Each of the three books I discuss, "Living Solo," "Outsourced" and "Coming Apart," attests to tectonic shifts in US personal life. All three are silent on the apparition of the looming elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room is the capitalist colossus that has replaced and outsourced decent jobs, cut wages, denied family supports and decimated the US family. Within this disaster, living solo seems preferable. Emotional life is outsourced or neglected and families come apart.

Right-wing ideology has captured Americans who feel that their family lives are looted. The right is the only sector that explicitly, verbally supports the work of raising a family, even though it simultaneously denies financial support to every aspect of family well-being.

The Left has ignored the bleeding US family to our detriment. We have stood outside the personal arena too long. Capitalism and intimate life are intimately interconnected. All three of the popular books I discuss engage the crucial topic of changed personal life, a topic which the Left largely ignores. We will need to address both capitalist plunder and personal life if we want a chance to win.

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