Healthier and wealthier but lonelier?


How are you today? Are you healthier and wealthier than you were a few years ago? The latest statistics from the UK's General Household Survey suggest it is quite likely that you are.

You may well be healthier than you were because the survey – compiled by the Office of National Statistics – shows that "prevalence of cigarette smoking among adults has fallen from 45% in 1974 to 20% in 2011". At the same time, "the proportion of men and women drinking on five or more days a week fell from 23% of men in 1998 to 16% in 2011 and from 13% to 9% for women."

We are also, as a nation, much wealthier too. The figures show that since 1972, the proportion of households with a telephone has increased from 42% to almost all households (including mobile phones); the number with washing machines has risen from 66% to 96%; and the share of those with central heating has gone up from 37% to 98%. The percentage of homes with computers has increased from nine per cent in 1984 to 80% in 2011.

Yet while our material wealth has increased, has the quality of our relationships decreased? The proportion of one-parent families has tripled – from eight per cent in 1971 to 22% in 2011. And the proportion of adults living alone virtually doubled between 1973 and 2011, from nine per cent to 16%. Across the span of the survey's four decades, the proportion of older people aged 75 and over living alone has remained fairly constant at about half the total. It turns out that the increase in one-adult households has come about because people aged 25-44 are five times more likely to live alone (10% in 2011) than in 1973 (two per cent).

It is easy to look for the negative in these various figures. Yet from a Christian perspective we can surely rejoice that people are generally looking after their health better: this is surely good stewardship of the bodies made in the image of God that He has given us. We can also, I think, be pretty positive about the many great household appliances that we enjoy: we have it much, much easier than our parents and grandparents in terms of the simple day-to-day responsibilities of running a home. Let's be thankful!

It's also easy to see the increase in the proportion of adults living alone as a wholly negative thing indicating a growing isolationism and individuality in people's lives. There must, though, be some who have chosen to live alone rather than with others – and with the rise in computer and phone use, ways of staying in touch have never been easier or cheaper.

What the figures do seem to suggest is that the way people are forming relationships is less structured, more flexible and more fluid than in the past. This, of course, carries its dangers: for example, as Christian writer Barry Cooper has written recently, online dating "encourages us to become never-satisfied consumers of relationships, always looking to upgrade". He asks: "Might the intoxication of choice lead to the death of commitment—and contentment?" So how can we encourage contentment in healthy, flourishing marriages?

At the same time, the rise in the number of single parent households also indicates the huge burden being carried by many solo mothers and fathers: how, I wonder, could churches be better in supporting, helping and equipping such people? Many churches offer parenting courses, but are there any aimed specifically at single parents? And do they offer appropriate childcare and perhaps a free meal so that such men and women can actually get there?

In a nutshell: how can we be salt and light in this society?

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