Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part I: The Loneliness Fascination

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

  I. The Epidemic That Wasn’t

A couple of weeks ago, Arthur Brooks, in the New York Times, told us that an “epidemic of loneliness” was “tearing America apart.”  Brooks, citing a Cigna survey, brought us the bad news: “Most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”

I blogged my skepticism (here). That number — nearly half — was way out of line with what other repeated surveys like the GSS have found. Last week, Pew issued a “Facttank” report about loneliness. The Pew survey found, as had previous studies, that loneliness went hand-in-hand with feelings of dissatisfaction with family, work, and community. No surprise there. But the estimate of the scope of the problem was much smaller. Did nearly half the population suffer by these feelings? Hardly.

(Click to enlarge.)

Overall, one in ten Americans say they are lonely. Not having a partner makes loneliness more likely. So does not having money. (Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. Or rather, nobody knows 16% of you when you’re down and out, which is really not all that many — nowhere near the nearly 50% Brooks cites, thought it is more than the mere 6% of people with higher incomes.)

“Calling Claude Fischer,” I said in that blog post, because for years, Claude has been  been debunking these claims about loneliness epidemics, comparing them against the available evidence from social science. On Sunday, the Times included his response to the Brooks article.

Loneliness is a serious social problem, but there is no good evidence that it has spiked over the last couple decades or so. . . . We have no current epidemic of loneliness, but we do have periodic epidemics of alarm about loneliness.

The Times published several other letters on this topic (here) . Claude’s was the only one expressing any doubt about the loneliness panic.

Even among sociologists, he is in the minority.  The plague-of-loneliness idea and its corollary, the demise of community, have been at the core of important sociology books going back a half century or more.

More tellingly, these three books – David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone — are part of a small, select group — serious sociology books that sold well outside of academia. These books were bought and read even by people who weren’t going to be asked about them on the final. Apparently, Americans like reading about loneliness.

(Continued in the next post.)

Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part II: Turtles All the Way Down

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Continued from the previous post.)

II. A Myth of Decline for Everyone

Obviously, loneliness cannot have been increasing at epidemic levels every year since 1950. Nor could the sense of community have been similarly decreasing. If they had, we would be at 100% loneliness and 0% community. Yet each generation looks to the past as having been a time of greater community and less isolation. What makes this idea so irresistible?

My hunch is that the persistent appeal of this idea of a communitarian past has the same roots as another popular myth of decline — the authoritarian past. According to this myth, parental authority has all but disappeared, and kids today are far less obedient than their counterparts of a generation ago. But of course, a generation ago, adults were saying the same thing about their kids, as were the adults of the generation before that about theirs, and so on. Turtles all the way down.

Nearly twelve years ago, I suggested (here) that these myths resemble the 19th century idea in evolution that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” but in reverse. They project the experience of the individual onto the entire society.  In that post, I imagined the man who says, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.”

He pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

This perception generalizes to the idea that adults a generation ago were more powerful vis-à-vis children than are adults today.

The same logic underlies the idea of the decline of community. The world of the child is warm, nurturing, and personal; dependence on others is taken for granted. Compared with the world of grown-ups, life is simple. (Of course the child does not make that comparison; grown-ups do.) Adults, by contrast, move among a complicated diversity of separate settings where feelings count for less, where dependence is less tolerated, and where interactions are based on people trying to accomplish their own goals. Childhood is Gemeinschaft, or as that word is usually translated, community.  Then, as we grow up, the Gemeinschaft share of our lives dwindles, leaving us with a nostalgia for those simpler times. Mentally transposing that personal experience to the society at large takes us from “my childhood” to “the good old days,” you know, the time when people knew one another and cared about one another, when life was simpler, and nobody was lonely — just like when we were kids. But of course, when they were kids, their parents were similarly mourning the loss of the good old days, as were their parents. Turtles all the way down. 

There’s an interesting difference between these two myths of decline. The myth of the authoritarian past appeals mostly to those who find authoritarianism appealing. But the decline-of-community finds adherents across the political and cultural spectrum.  It’s not just liberal sociologists who patrol the loneliness-community axis. The Brookses at the New York Times who write about it (Arthur and David) are politically conservative but culturally liberal. But go way over to the right, and you’ll hear Hannity, O’Brien, Glenn Beck, and others mourning the loss of a more Gemeinschaft-like world. From left to right, these observers disagree about just what has caused the crisis (smartphones and social media are the latest villains), but they are united in their assumptions, despite the shakiness of the evidence.

Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 1950s. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris. But he is not so keen on getting back together.

I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been long enough before to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”

The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

Tom Waits

December 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tom Waits is 69 years old today.

I don’t remember how I found my way to Tom Waits, though it happened fairly late in my listening life,  or who showed me the way? Was it the jazz station DJ who played “Emotional Weather Report” early one morning as I was driving to New Jersey? Or my step-brother the huge Dylan fan? Or was it the friend who sent me a mix tape with the Tori Amos cover of “Time.”? (Waits’s songs do not lend themselves to covers. But Amos’s “Time” is an exception. And of course there’s Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl.”).

Waits’s lyrics, like Dylan’s, shine with novel imagery of the familiar world.

You’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds
Like a round of applause.

But Waits, also like Dylan, often stays in his own room, inviting us in to look at the striking but puzzling pictures on the wall.

Oh and things are pretty lousy
For a calendar girl.
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
And when they’re on a roll
She pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons
Fall around her feet

Anyway, here’s the original, just Waits (voice and guitar) and an accordion sounding more like a concertina.