I was at Westminster Cathedral today and browsing through their newsletter (no, not during the homily!) I spotted a notice for volunteers to help with the forthcoming national census that will take place on March 27th. This reminded me of an article I’d read in The Economist just before Christmas by its British editor, Andrew Miller, predicting the findings of this census and what it might tell us about how we are presently living in Britain:
The census will reveal a sharp rise in the number of adults in their 20s who still live with their parents, tethered to the family nest by a combination of limited economic opportunities and still-high property prices. Yet it will also suggest that, among affluent young people, more are opting to live alone (because they are settling down with partners later, and eschewing the option of sharing with friends in favour of getting a foot on the property ladder). And it isn’t only yuppies who will be shown to be living by themselves. So will several other kinds of Britons.
Britain’s divorce rate has stabilised. But that trend disguises a rise in the overall separation rate. The number of couples who choose to cohabit rather to marry has risen; and their relationships tend to be more fragile than modern marriages. So the overall separation rate is higher than the (marriage-only) divorce rate. As the census will enumerate, this means a steadily rising number of people who are living by themselves. More, too, will be found to be living alone at the end of their lives, after a partner dies. (The ageing population will be another of the census’s headline themes. It will record that there are almost 1.5m people in Britain aged 85 and over – and that the country is home to more pensioners than children.)
People will be found to be working alone – at home – more than ever. In the sphere of work, Britain will emerge as a radically bifurcating country: increasingly divided between the workaholic and the work-shy. There will be a large number of households in which both the resident adults work worryingly long hours – and, even more worryingly, a large number in which no one works at all.
If Miller’s predictions are correct, then the Britain of 2011 is one in which people of every age are living more atomised, disconnected lives. The traditional bonds that held relationships, families and communities together are being rejected in favour of looser, less stable bonds. This is a worrying trend if we are to maintain some recognisable form of social cohesion and individuals are to hope for something more than a life alone.
Our relationships, particularly with people whom we love – husband or wife, parents, children, dearest friend – embody something of our meaning and who we are. If such relationships start to deteriorate, then we risk being degraded as well. At the same time, this picture is also an opportunity for existing communities (the family, religious and social groups of all colours and persuasions) to show what has been possible in the past and present robust and attractive models of community living for the future.