There’s nothing that strikes fear into the hearts of the right-wing press like “modern family structures”. That inoffensive-seeming phrase actually contains within it the means to destroy an entire civilisation, with its divorces, its free love and its unmarried cohabitation, its geriatric pregnancies and its newborn babies using iPads in their incubators. Purveyors of all that is untraditional gallivant madly through our society, throwing out a ginger stepchild here and an unchallenged eyebrow piercing there. They make life unbearable for the upright citizens who still believe in common sense, roast dinners, “political correctness gone mad” and leaving it half an hour after your dinner to go swimming.
This week, modern family structures are to blame for loneliness among the elderly, after a survey found that pensioners live 77 minutes, on average, from their nearest close relative. Older people now languish in lonely housing, with no one to help with their daily needs, and struggle to cope when they hit a speed bump in their health or their financial situation changes. In the words of Jeremy Hunt: “We have become so distant from blood relatives that we don’t have any idea even when they are dying.” And all too often, charities are now filling the gap left by – you guessed it – modern family structures.
How callous we have all become, ignoring our relatives to the point that we barely even notice when they are about to shuffle off this mortal coil. “Sorry, what’s that Grandad? Leukaemia? Take a couple of paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll clear up,” you can just hear the modern mother saying down the phone, while absent-mindedly handing her toddler a gin and tonic. I say her toddler, but really it’s her fourth husband’s from his marriage to a career woman who ditched her kids as soon as a C-level exec position became available. The three of them eat kiwi-flavoured quinoa for breakfast and have daily family meetings about the refugee crisis, all the while completely unaware that Great Aunt Ethel has long since passed on and become mummified within the plastic covering of her sofa.
Except that is not how modern family structures really work, is it? It might now be in vogue to call them “blended families” instead of broken homes, but the reality is that people live with divorce and complicated custody arrangements because society has become open enough to accept people leaving relationships when they are profoundly unhappy. There is nothing cool or trendy about that, when you think about it – just a few broken hearts and £500 in counselling for the kids.
Likewise, we live under a capitalism which has become a lot less kind than its 1950s counterpart. Back when employee loyalty was fostered, and whole departments took pay cuts rather than let two people get laid off altogether, your connections to the community and your family situation held much more sway over your employer. People were kept in jobs and given training to catch up when they had fallen behind - rather than being replaced by unsalaried interns - because their ailing mothers lived down the road and it was generally accepted that the responsibility to that family was borne, in part, by their boss.
Nowadays, a pervasive “get-on-your-bike” mentality means that if you are not willing to move to a shack in north Alaska at five minutes’ notice, then sorry but we’ll have to let you go, and good luck with the throat cancer.
In other words, it is not unfair to say that modern families lack the structure and security they once did. But it is unfair to suggest that this is because the young adults and the middle aged of 2015 are selfish, ungrateful prigs who care more about their Starbucks-brand pumpkin spice lattes than their grandfathers lying at the bottom of the stairs with their legs hanging on by a sinew. For many, if not most, the circumstances surrounding their “more-than-77-minute” journeys to keep in touch with older relatives were brought about by forces completely beyond their control.
We may live further from our family homes, but the time we can’t spend with them we invest in building supportive, family-like friendship circles. These spaces are needed more than ever now that so many of us do come from upbringings involving divorce; when the prospect of Christmas Day is more Fight Club than It’s A Wonderful Life (usually with the same accompanying first rule: don’t ever talk about it), returning to a social group where no one gets drunk on cheap wine and starts rehashing why they never even liked your dad is a welcome relief.
For many of us, the strongest and most permanent relationships are now found outside the immediate family – and there’s no shame in choosing to invest in them.
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