The uptick in suicides among less-educated, non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. in the last three years has been enough to affect overall life expectancy statistics. The same thing is happening in other developed countries.
Commonly-proffered explanations include “economic stagnation, stress, communities decimated by shuttered factories and mines, social media, Purdue Pharma, and others.”
The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz offers another explanation to put into the mix: breakdown of the family. She writes in the Washington Examner:
We’ve known for a long time that unstable family life related to divorce, missing fathers, and communities with large numbers of single-mother households can be bad for kids. Deaths of despair are a red-flag warning that that these disruptions are similarly hard on adults. Though only 32% of the population, unmarried and divorced men account for a stunning 71% of opioid deaths. Emile Durkheim, one of the godfathers of sociology, found a link between suicide and family breakup over a century ago; the same link remains today. Divorce increases the risk of alcoholism for both men and women; so does checking “single” for marital status on government documents.
These numbers shed some light on why deaths of despair are concentrated among those with lower incomes. Higher income folks are more likely to marry and to stay married. They have closer, more sustained relationships with their children, relatives, and in-laws. In recent years, despite its one-time reputation as stalwart family traditionalists, the white working-class has diverged from its more affluent counterpart. As of 1980, about three quarters of white working-class adults were married; that was very similar to the 79% of high-income adults. By 2017, however, the working-class number had fallen to only 52%.
Divorce, nonmarital births, and father absence are also increasingly common. All of these trends were once largely associated with African Americans, but they have become equal-opportunity problems. During congressional testimony in 2017, Robert Putnam, author of the landmark book Bowling Alone, summarized the situation thus: “The white working class family is today more fragile than the black family was at the time of the famous alarm-sounding 1965 ‘Report on the Negro Family’ by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
Interestingly, divorce is also becoming increasingly common among Baby Boomers. So-called “gray divorce” is often followed by another marriage. But these marriages are also likely to end in divorce.
Co-habiting arrangements among younger, unmarried people are also frequently of short duration, with fathers in such situations tending to be less involved with their children.
Hymowitz sees the result of family breakup as “a growing subculture of loosely bound or even isolated adults.” She concludes:
Look only to Japan, where the family is in virtual free fall, to guess what lies ahead. That nation is seeing an epidemic of elderly men living alone (they are mostly men) who have no close relatives or friends and whose decayed bodies are found weeks or months after their deaths by landlords or police. The Japanese refer to these as “lonely deaths.”
Lonely deaths: Is that what's come of the American dream?
Can we revive the family and thus provide better environments for old and young?