Atruly revolutionary transformation is happening in America—a revolution in our personal lives and intimate relationships. Many more people are choosing to live alone, the wealthy are increasingly outsourcing ever more intimate aspects of their domestic lives, and the viability of the traditional family model of a breadwinner supporting a stay-at-home parent is waning.
This virtual revolution is invisible in plain sight, precipitated by vast economic changes with wide social and personal ramifications. What has happened, in brief, is that the economic basis of U.S. family life has been transformed. Corporate capitalism is the barely perceived elephant in our bedroom. Manufacturing is now outsourced to nations with cheap labor, weak labor laws, and dictatorships that force worker compliance. White-collar trades such as computer technical assistance, accounting, and computer programming are similarly outsourced for cheap labor and greater corporate profit. The few blue-collar trades that remain in America are increasingly mechanized, eliminating even more jobs.
The economic basis for a traditional family used to be the family wage that supported dependent wives and children. High-wage jobs were reserved for white males, of whom there was a scarcity. White men’s access to the family wage began to decrease in the early 1980s and this shift was given a boost by Ronald Reagan’s campaign to smash labor unions. Ironically, the Republican Party, in giving free rein to corporate capitalism, was the major force that decimated the traditional U.S. family that Republicans continuously endorse. Right-wing forces continue to deny the economic basis for the shift toward arrangements in which both parents work both outside of the home and within it. They claim to be concerned about the American family, but they oppose the vital family supports that other developed nations such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and all of the Scandinavian nations guarantee: free child care, after-school care, health care, paid vacation time, paid family leave, and paid maternity and paternity leaves. UNICEF’s 2013 report card on “Child Well-Being in Rich Countries” ranks the United States twenty-sixth of the world’s twenty-nine most advanced economies, based on an analysis of children’s material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors, and living environment.
Since Americans suffer from so little material support for family life and since even two U.S. incomes can no longer produce the living standard that one “breadwinner” income previously provided, life with a family is increasingly difficult and precarious. As a result, living solo appeals to an increasing number of Americans. For the diminishing numbers of U.S. couples who still have children, emotional life is often outsourced or neglected, and families come apart. Wealthier families have far better durability only because they can buy the family help, child care, takeout food, and vacation time that 80 percent of the U.S. population cannot afford.
These different effects of the revolution in U.S. personal life have been the topic of four popular books: Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men, Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. These books remind me of the story in which blind men argue about what an elephant is: each man touches a different part of the elephant and ends his search with the one part he touches. None sees a picture of the elephant with all of its interconnected parts. In discussing these four books, I will try to bring together their fragmented perspectives to bring into view the whole picture of how U.S. family life has transformed and why.
Class Differences in the Experience of Living Alone
Going Solo, which describes the meteoric rise of people choosing to live alone, is a good place to start. Today, for the first time since the Census began counting in 1880, more than half of American adults are single. They are tied with...