David Earl Johnson, LICSW

9 minute read


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[King Crimson | 21st Century Schizoid Man Lyrics][2] Cats foot iron claw

Neuro-surgeons scream for more

At paranoias poison door.

Twenty first century schizoid man. Blood rack barbed wire

Polititians funeral pyre

Innocents raped with napalm fire

Twenty first century schizoid man. Death seed blind mans greed

Poets starving children bleed

Nothing hes got he really needs

Twenty first century schizoid man. When I first heard of the study excerpted below, I immediately thought of King Crimson’s screeching discordant guitar accompanying Greg Lake (more famous for his part in Emerson, Lake and Palmer) singing in angry, alienated tones about the coming 21st century when isolation and alienation will be pandemic. I had found that song disturbing and eventually difficult to listen to. Thus the LP has gathered dust ever since. Miller McPherson et al from University of Arizona and Duke University wrote an article in AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2006, VOL. 71 (June:353-375) titled “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades”. This 2004 study replicated a 1985 survey using the General Social Survey (GSS) of about 1500 people drawn from a nationally representative sample. What they found stunned them.

The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically, and the number of alternative discussion partners has shrunk. In his groundbreaking study of social networks, “To Dwell among Friends”, Claude Fischer (1982:125-27) labeled those who had only one or no discussion ties with whom to discuss personal matters as having marginal or inadequate counseling [close social, not professional] support. By those criteria, we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated from counseling support to almost half of the population falling into that category.

The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood. The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents). The education level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population. High school graduates and those with some college are now in a very family-dominated social environment of core confidants. […]

Having a network dominated by family members still increases one’s contact with other ages and the other sex, while it makes the interpersonal environment more homogeneous with regard to race. […]Americans are still stratified on education and race. Higher education people have larger networks of both family and non-family members, and their networks have more of the range that tends to bring new information and perspective into the interpersonal environment. Non-whites still have smaller networks than whites. […]

Our final estimates, corrected for response problems and demographic shifts, are that (1) the typical American discussion network has slightly less than one fewer confidant in it than it did in 1985 [about 3 in 1985, down to 2 in 2004], and (2) that in 2004 an adult, non-institutionalized American is much more likely [nearly 50%] to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985. This is a major social change. Most people talk about personal matters only to a family member, a spouse is the common choice. Most no longer have a best friend outside of the family. Meanwhile, divorce is more common than it’s ever been.

I think close relationships are most likely to shape attitudes and values. Since we tend to share values with our family members, we have fewer inputs of diverse viewpoints and behaviors, especially from people we respect. People place greater importance and stress on the few close relationships they have to meet their social needs. There is less diversity in our social support system especially of a cultural nature. Therefore we are exposed to a narrower range of ideas and our opinions are less likely to be as broadly based as they have been in the past. Americans are less likely to understand other cultures or tolerate a divergent lifestyle.

Support networks have become more like a closed system. Closed systems are known for their rigid rules of conduct, intolerance towards nonconformity, and oppression of divergent behaviors. They also are known to be inflexible to outside changes, less likely to adapt smoothly to environmental changes, responding instead with stereotypic oppressive responses to members attempting to find a better solution. The cost of nonconformity too often is a loss of access to the close social support needed to cope and adjust to a rapidly changing social environment. Just when life in America is getting more complicated, Americans are losing some of their creative flexibility. Much has been said of the rising hours on the job, the prevalence of two income families, and the frequent job changes and inter-city migration. Income and buying power peaked in the 1990’s during the surge of information industries. Enthusiastic growth gave way to oversupply and the so called “dot com” crash. The number of six figure incomes dropped precipitously. People are still working longer hours, but now it’s to maintain or retrieve lost income or make up for higher costs of living.

The social retrenchment is understandable from this perspective. People are focused more in income security, less on social ties. Many people recognize they are just a few months of unemployment away from homelessness. It’s as if American families are circling their wagons to cope with an increasing cost of living and stagnating incomes. Why is it that Americans seem to lack an understanding of the importance of social support? Perhaps most evident in urban and suburban settings, people are now seeing a wider diversity of cultures and behavior patterns than ever, at a time when they have a lessor capacity to integrate this knowledge.

Sullen isolating attitudes are most evident on public transportation. Few people talk on buses, eye contact is avoided. Clearly people are afraid of meeting new acquaintances. News accounts of heinous violent crimes create an appearance of danger in meeting strangers. With people increasingly intolerant of divergent behavior, strangers who do find themselves in conflict expect a problem and lack the skills needed to find a win-win solution to the conflict. Too often, both parties go away feeling like the loser or at least frustrated with an impasse.

While the danger of violence and crime is still relatively uncommon and presenting a low risk to the average city dweller, clearly, people believe they are at risk and they protect themselves by walling themselves off from new acquaintances, especially if they are different. Basic social skills and emotion management never have been taught formally.

Traditionally, emotion management and social skills were taught at home in resolving conflict with siblings under the tutelage of a stay-at-home mom. Now, however, most kids have their first social exposure in day care settings supervised much more loosely by a largely paraprofessional staff with little training beyond what they learned from their own childhood. At home, children are largely parented by the flickering screen while parents take care of routine chores until they join the children to rest in front of the TV. Its no wonder children have so much difficulty with conflict and grow up afraid of making new friends. What is the solution? TheEditorInChief at Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments has the traditional response to “Fixing America’s Loneliness Problem”.

As Dr. Putnam remarks in the Times’ coverage, the number of friends we have is a strong indicator of how long we’ll live. And while most strong friendships are cultivated in face-to-face interaction, our technologies offer us the ability to maintain ties when distance and reduced availability of time have forced a wedge between acquaintances. Trends will not change on their own and maintaining friendships may not be easy work. But as with anything worth having, we must be willing to work for our friendships.

Take a moment to think about those who you may still hold dear, despite what time and distance may have done to your connection. Each of those people is only an email, or heck, even a text message away. By taking up the tools that our new age has given us, we don’t have to live lives of loneliness. We have the option to stay in touch, and as broadband expands and computer processors increase in strength, we will be able to see one another face to face again very soon on web cams and broadband phone calls. Hold onto your family. Ask those close to you about the things that really matter. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You might be surprised at how ready those around you, or indeed, on the other side of the continent, are to answer you call.

Truly most of us can only hope to have an impact one person at a time, so the above suggestions are sound advice. But as a society we need to respond to what increasingly is looking like a deterioration of social conditions in America. People are increasingly isolated with no indication that this trend will reverse. A broad based shift in responsibility of teaching social and emotion skills must be recognized and dealt with planfully and competently. Ignoring this shift and claiming mothers should stay home with their children will not make it so. Incomes have stagnated and mom’s salary is needed now more than ever just to maintain housing and food. Neglecting this new responsibility brings more chaos to the streets, increasing isolation, and the more inflexible stereotypic and counter productive responses will become.

Families, functioning like closed systems are not very successful at adjusting to change, they too often fly apart and cease to function as a viable source of support for it’s members. Too many end up on the margins of our society, vulnerable to crime victimization and criminal behavior.

Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, called for teaching emotion management in schools. Emotion management must be taught side by side with basic social skills, beginning at the child’s first contact with other children. Parents have never received any formal training, day care providers and elementary school teachers have seemingly too little. Yet changes are beginning to come. Goleman reports on a number of curriculums written and pilots run with good research results.

My wife, a paraprofessional staff in the local elementary school, taught a regular class titled “Character Ed” where the values of integrity and conflict resolution are taught in creative ways using multi-media guaranteed to capture the attention of the youngsters until funding was cut. But more is needed.

Schools and day care providers have yet to accept their responsibility to teach social and emotional skills. Taxpayers are not in the mood to fund a new expanded curriculum. But the alternatives are unacceptable. Pay now, invest in future generations, or the chaos in the streets will come to your neighborhood soon. Let’s avoid the tragic future of 21st Century Schizoid Man. Hat tip to Crooked Timber for the link.

[2]: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/k/king crimson/21st century schizoid man_20078587.html “King Crimson | 21st Century Schizoid Man Lyrics”

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