Melanie Phillips

5 November 2012

Broken families, lonely Britain

Published in: Daily Mail

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Britain appears to be turning into a disunited kingdom of solitary and lonely people.

Recent figures have shown that ever-increasing numbers of middle-aged men and women are living alone.

According to the Office of National Statistics, almost 2.5 million people aged between 45 and 64 have their own home but no spouse, partner or children to live with them. Since the mid-Nineties, their number has grown by more than 50 per cent.

This disturbing trend was always entirely predictable as one of the baleful effects of family breakdown. For the age group that is so over-represented in these dismal figures is the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation — those who grew up in the Swinging Sixties and proceeded to throw over the traditional family.

Far worse than the damage the boomers did to themselves, however, has been the damage done to the links between the generations.

For if a parent disappears from his or her children’s lives, those children are far less likely to want to look after that parent when he or she becomes old and frail.

Nor will children want to look after a step-parent who, even if not actively resented, will not command the same bonds of love and duty as someone’s natural father or mother.

This breaking of the bonds between the generations is absolutely calamitous. For beyond the tragic abandonment of people to lonely lives, there can be no community without a strong sense of duty and commitment to other people and the need to look after them.

What this society has increasingly thrown overboard is nothing less than the idea of kinship, where people are knitted together by the sense they belong to each other.

Instead, our post-religious, post-modern, post-moral society prizes above all else independence, which is seen as essential to fulfilling one’s potential without any constraints or interference by anyone else.

This fact more than anything else helps explain the rise and rise of cohabitation, and the reason why so many now prefer it to marriage.

The key point about marriage is that it is not a partnership or a relationship but a union in which two people bind themselves to each other for ever in solemn obligation.

By contrast, those who choose to cohabit regard their relationship as a partnership of independent individuals — in which they reserve for themselves the right to opt out, with no binding obligation on either side.

Whatever they think the word ‘commitment’ may mean, the fact is they are not prepared to make that leap of faith and love that binds them in a permanent tie of obligation to another person. Who can be surprised, therefore, that cohabitations break up far more frequently than do marriages? For cohabitants have written themselves a get-out clause from the start.

Nor is it surprising that a principal reason why cohabitations collapse is the arrival of a baby. For a child demands unconditional obligation to another human being. And that’s what cohabitants don’t want.

Cohabitation and family breakdown are the results of the great onslaught on marriage and the traditional family that has taken place over the past four decades and more.

Left-wing ideologues wanted to smash western society by eroding all the moral authority and constraints on which it was based, and replace it with a brave new world in which individuals would make up all the rules to suit themselves.

The results of that social experiment are now being seen.

A devastating study published last week revealed that, by the time they are 15, little more than half of British children are still living with both their natural parents. That means nearly half of 15-year-olds are not.

What an ocean of misery is contained within that one bleak and shocking statistic. For we know only too well what the fragmentation of the family does to children.

Of course, there are lone parents who do a heroic job in bringing up their children against all the odds, but in general children in fragmented families suffer in every aspect of their lives.

They do worse at school and are less likely to get a job, are more prone to drugs, teenage pregnancy and crime, suffer more from depression and other mental disorders and are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.

Worse still, they go on disproportionately to replicate in their adult lives the very same disordered or broken family patterns that did them so much damage.

For in fractured families, where one spouse has betrayed or abandoned another and where partners may come and go, the children grow up without any understanding of what it takes to overcome difficulties in a relationship, or what things such as trust, loyalty — and yes, real love — actually mean.

Instead, wary of commitment for fear of getting hurt, they set the bar for what they want out of a relationship impossibly high — too high for it to work. Yet now nearly half of all 15-year-olds are caught up in this social disaster.

This is the terrible legacy of all those who set out to destroy the traditional family — and all those others who haven’t had the bottle to do anything about it.

From easier divorce to the abolition of laws covering illegitimacy; from the promotion of unmarried motherhood to the feminist demonisation of men; from the doctrine of non-judgmentalism, which gave a free pass to the abandonment of children, to the loading of the tax and welfare dice against marriage and in favour of lone parenthood — the wrecking ball of the Left has succeeded in smashing the traditional family to bits.

As a result, it is well on the way to becoming upheld by only a minority.

The cost is simply incalculable.

Loneliness is becoming endemic. Ties of kinship are fracturing, resulting in more and more people being abandoned when they grow old and frail.

They will increasingly turn to the State to take care of them. More and more houses will also have to be built to accommodate people who once would have lived in families but are now living alone.

The financial costs of picking up the pieces of all these abandoned or shattered lives is enormous. No society can afford this — nor survive such social atomisation.

The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, well understands all this. He has said the Government will make preventing the breakdown of family life the key yardstick to measure the success of social programmes for the poor.

His personal commitment to preventing family breakdown is beyond question. But the same cannot be said of the Government of which he is part.

The Prime Minister promised to incentivise marriage in the tax system. Yet we are still waiting for him to do so.

And does anyone really believe a politician so terrified of being called names by the Left would ever stop the benefits system from providing financial incentives to unmarried parents?

Will he arrest the explosion of cohabitation, which has put rocket fuel under the number of fatherless children?

Reversing the tide of family breakdown requires heroic political courage and a gimlet-eyed focus on the need to defend Britain against the culture war that has been waged against it.

Alas, our ruling elite is either on the wrong side of that culture war or has surrendered to it.  The great tragedy is Britain will feel a far lonelier place as a result.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie