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Will we die from being kinless?

We may be living longer, but we're also living lonelier. Credit: Westend61

We may be living longer, but we're also living lonelier. Credit: Westend61

October 12, 2017   3 mins

Government budgets are already buckling under the strain of an ageing population – and we’re still a long way from reaching ‘peak grey’. The baby-boom generation, who spent like sailors in port in their younger years, have made scant provision for their impending old age.

But this lack of prudence is more than financial. Baby-boomers are also losing the family networks through which societies have traditionally supported the elderly. The point is made by Ashton M Verdery and Rachel Margolis in a paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

“Older adults have lived within dense kin networks for most of human history and the kinless have been a small subpopulation in the modern demographic era. However, recent declines in marriage, increases in gray divorce, and fertility decline are leading to larger numbers of older adults with no close family members. Mortality improvements and the increase in new relationship forms among older adults are not large enough to offset these trends.”

We have over-pruned our family trees, meaning that increasing numbers of us will spend some or all of our later years without close relatives. This isn’t just a personal matter, it has huge implications for public policy: “Those without living close kin report higher rates of loneliness and experience elevated risks of chronic diseases and nursing facility placement.”

The Verdery and Margolis study looks at the extent to which ‘kinlessness’ is likely to grow in the United States over the coming decades:

“Our findings point to dramatic increases in the numbers of kinless older adults in the United States, whether we consider a broad or a narrow definition of kinlessness. The increases occur for whites and blacks, men and women. By 2060, we expect the population of white and black Americans over 50 y old without a living partner or children to reach as high as 21.1 million, 6.3 million of whom will also lack living siblings or parents, up from our estimates of 14.9 million and 1.8 million, respectively, in 2015.”

So the number of older (not just elderly) Americans with no close relatives will more than triple in forty years. Of course, losing family is an occupational hazard of growing old. But by having fewer, or no, children, and by forming looser relationships with partners, we’re reducing our chances of holding on to at least some family.

But what of friendship, neighbourliness and community? Could the wider web of human relationships compensate for the growth of kinlessness?

It’s a nice thought, but consider how many of these connections are routed to you through immediate family members. By losing, or never forming, close family relationships you cut yourself off from a larger number of secondary, but still important, relationships.

Quite rightly, we worry about the number of people approaching retirement without savings or property. Where will they live? How will they pay the rent? Good questions. But we also need to think about their relational poverty.

No home, no money, no family, no friends – it’s a truly grim picture, but, unless things change, an increasingly common one.

Our politicians are reluctant to address issues of family life (‘a private matter’) and they’re unwilling to do much to build the houses and communities in which family life can flourish. Furthermore, as we saw in the British general election this year, any attempt to fund a social care solution is fraught with political risk.

Looking ahead, how might society adapt to the increasing isolation of the elderly? Machines to provide care and companionship in our dotage? Or maybe euthanasia – already a common cause of death in some countries.

So, in place of family life, robots and assisted suicide. How long will it be before we take these wonders of the modern age and combine them?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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