While many in the media have covered the bankruptcy of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and its Buy, Buy, Baby stores, few talk about the larger, societal cause of the collapse of this long-time retail giant.
Here’s a hint. This underlying cause is also the fuel of the epidemic of loneliness identified by the US Surgeon General in May. Here too, few of our experts want to just state the obvious.
Marriage – at least the growing lack of it – is the underlying cause of both recent stories.
The newly published Nationwide Study on Faith and Relationships shows how the collapse of marriage is causing our societally explosive levels of loneliness and isolation. Paradoxically to some, loneliness is not largely an epidemic for the elderly, but for the young. Our study found those never married in their 30s – both men and women — were lonelier on average than the loneliest group of widows.
This is a group of people who would have been nearly universally married before the year 2000. Scholars don’t start identifying loneliness as a blight until sometime thereafter.
The flight from marriage also has been changing our nation’s demography, which continues to change our nation’s economy. It is the proverbial elephant in the room behind many of our retail closings as of late.
Any college junior majoring in business management could tell you that the best customers for spending on home goods and newborn accessories are married people. And today, there are just too few of them.
Compared to the year 2000, there are 31 percent fewer weddings annually. Bed, Bath, and Beyond opened in 1971 – when we compare the marriage rate today to the year before the now-bankrupt retailer opened, there are 61 percent fewer weddings annually. Married people earn more and have more buying power.
Less marriage not only means less per capita income, but also means a shrinking population as married people have far more babies than the unmarried. The flight from marriage obviously fed into the recent closing of David’s Bridal and the much-publicized bankruptcies of Babies R Us and Toys R Us in 2017.
The problems of these retail closings seem trivial when we consider the societal wide effects from the flight from marriage causes. It’s been likely known since before Voltaire wrote in the 18th century that, “The more married men you have, the fewer crimes there will be.”
Beyond increases in crime, less personal wealth, and worse outcomes for children, our sweeping mental health crisis is another more major consequence. And this one also afflicts the high-income earners who choose the transient fruits of the career ladder before the more enduring goods of the wedding altar.
My organization supports churches across the country and recently conducted 19,000 surveys of church goers in 112 congregations – Protestant and Catholic — across 13 different states and found that a chasm in loneliness exists between single and married church goers.
The young and single were far more likely to fit into the public health definition of being lonely, which research has shown leads to life spans that are 15 years shorter. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of the unmarried in their 30s were lonely while just 17 percent of their married counter parts in this age group suffered from this same mental health challenge.
Media and Elites should spare us the notion that social media and smart phone use is an underlying cause of our loneliness epidemic.
Married Millennials and Gen Z also have social media and smart phones. And anyone can see from a quick scroll through their Facebook feed, there are plenty of married Gen X and Baby Boomers who have smart phones and who are on social media. The fact remains older generations are far less likely to be lonely, because they are simply far more likely to be married.
Conversely, the generations most plagued by loneliness are Millennials and Gen Z. They also are the least likely to be married.
In their 20s, many imbibed the cultural message that they were “too young to get married” and now find themselves the victims of the loneliness epidemic.
When they admit the decline in marriage is not a good thing, leaders throw up their hands and it too complex and impossible to remedy. I do notice these same individuals do not say this about other complex problems such as crime and poverty.
It is far past the time for church leaders, civic leaders, academic elites, and policy makers to focus on strategies that will increase the likelihood that young people will form the kinds of healthy relationships that can lead to a healthy marriage.
For our part, my organization, Communio, is working with a growing number of churches across the nation interested to solve this problem.
Because, as we have known since Genesis, it is not good for man to be alone.