The Flight from Attachment

One article talks about the declining rates of procreation. Another contemplates job mobility. When I pull the fragments together into one tableau I’m left with the question: How it attachment trending these days? To what do we attach ourselves in the 21st century?


Not to a corporation or employer, in the style of the Company Man, or the gold watch at the retirement party after four or five decades. We don’t attach ourselves to employers because we can’t, seeing as how employers don’t attach themselves to employees. Rather, they look to No Strings Attached and no-obligations employment. They seek out temporary, freelance, benefits-free labor; fire, outsource, and downsize at will; and squeeze as much productivity out of their employees as they can, without the joisting that shared benefits and distribution of profits might provide.

Even if a 20-something could envision pleasurable lifelong employment with one company, they’d most likely be foolish to pursue it. Young people are shrewd in not giving their hearts to the Company but, instead, seeing themselves as their own “brand,” transient and mobile.

There’s still marriage. Although not really, or not as robustly. The flight from marital attachment is a strong, decades-long trend. The Pew Research Center, which follows marriage and family trends, reports that marriage is at a record low, at barely half. New marriages were down 5% from 2009 to 2010. If the trend continues, the share of married Americans will drop notably below half in only a few years.  

Okay, there are still children to be had. Except that the “childfree” life is trending, too.  Census data show that 20% of women age 40 to 45 don’t have children, which is up from a mere 10% in the early 1970s. See the recent Time article whose cover I loathe, “The Childfree Life.”

We might not seek steady, lifelong employment, get married, or have children. But we still attach to meaningful, intimate relationships with lovers, right? Not quite. In the “hook-up culture” of young adulthood, that’s not the fashion.

Friends?  Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo reports in his book that 60 percent of Americans perceive themselves to be lonely. The Social Science Surveys found in 1984 that Americans had an average of three “confidants” (as opposed to more casual friends, colleagues, or acquaintances, confidants are told most anything, and the friendship is close enough to encourage disclosure). By 2000, that number had dwindled down toward one or “none.” Ironically, "social" media might not help matters. Social media favors grazing over root-laying. It favors the mile wide and inch deep over the intense. Does having a friend require more than a fleeting commitment in social media and, if not, does that really count as an attachment?

Maybe attachment has simply gone underground. Like ex-Governor Mark Sanford, who came up with the best euphemism ever for a tryst when he, ahem, “hiked the Appalachian Trail" (read: flew to Argentina to see his mistress) we’ll go to extreme lengths to nurture our illicit attachments. While I have no numbers to instantiate whether the incidence of illicit but deep attachments has risen or fallen, I do know that this century is more judgmental, and more intolerant about “cheating” than earlier generations, even when those bonds are, as in Sanford’s case, indisputably substantive and meaningful to the participants.

It’s not looking good for attachment.

There’s still community, and neighbors—except that at age 18, the average American can expect to move 9.1 times, according to Census estimates. By age 45, the number of moves is 2.7.

Before the crash of 2008, I would have singled out real estate, if not community, as an area of growing and stronger attachment, as the book Real Estate Love described. But the recession deprived us of this passion, curdling the love relationship into dysfunctional hostility. The transient arrangement of renting is on the rise.

In the aggregate, if you consider jobs, community, friends, marriage, lovers, children, and real estate, attachment isn’t faring so well. It’s trending downward in all of those areas.

There’s not much left, a place where attachment is trending deeper. Except dogs. Dog and pet "guardians" have generated booming economies of pet toys and caregiving services. Dogs now have their own cable station, and their own magazine, Bark. In a sluggish economy, Americans spent $53 billion on their pets in 2012, up 5% from the year before. And the number of households with pets has grown from 52% in 1988 to 62% today. So this is one attachment that’s trending strong. Concludes a business journalist, “pets fill a connection and friendship vacuum” today. New biochemical research has even found that dogs elicit the same intense oxytocin bonding response as your newborn. What’s striking in my mind is not the scientists’ conclusion, but that they thought to ask the question in the first place.

So, as they might say in Washington, If you want an attachment, get a dog.

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