The Baby Boomer generation in America can be characterized (in general) by what they value: independence, freedom, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness. They can also be characterized by what they no longer value: traditional marriage, religion, and close ties with extended family.
Boomers in the prime of life have put career at or near the top of their priority list. Advances in careers often require mobility, which usually means leaving hometowns, parents, and extended family. For those who are young and single, this is not usually a difficult sacrifice to make. Marriage or cohabitation can require more difficult choices when career and relationship compete. Long work hours, unpredictable overtime, and, in this age of technological connectedness, interruption of down time, can wreak havoc in a relationship – especially if both partners are pursuing careers. Relocation can require a choice between relationship and career.
Adding children to the relationship calls for even more prioritizing. Most upwardly mobile, two career couples have already moved away from parents and other family; giving up the “village” that used to allow grandparents or other family members to care for children while mom and dad worked. It is extremely taxing to organize childcare and to perform the added household chores that having children brings. When one parent, usually the mother, must take on the larger share of this responsibility, the result will be tension in the marriage or primary relationship.
Most American families are also caught up in fanatic materialism, which has resulted in the highest personal debt load in history. With easy credit, conspicuous consumerism, extreme advertisement, and an entitlement attitude that tells us that we must maintain a certain standard of living and that we deserve these things because we work so hard, and because “dammit, we’re Americans” it is easy to see that something has got to give.
Complicating all of this responsibility and tension is the societal expectation that we should all be free to pursue personal happiness, even in the midst of juggling a demanding career, children, and a primary relationship. Escape in the form of a new relationship with none of these burdens can seem like an oasis of freedom in a desert of responsibility.
Commitment to family, especially to a marriage or equivalent relationship is not valued in America nearly as much as it was to former generations. Divorce is relatively easy to acquire, at least legally. It no longer carries a social stigma; in fact, vowing to stay married “until death do us part” is no longer a societal expectation.
Americans are having fewer children, since the pursuit of personal happiness conflicts with the commitment required to raise children. The marriage/ divorce/ remarriage cycle results in complex and often estranged or hostile relationships between parents and children.
So with divorce, fewer children, scattered extended families, and complicated family relationships, more and more American seniors are going to be growing old alone. The expectation that adult children will care for elderly parents conflicts with the expectation that the next generation of adults will be pursuing their own happiness and needing time for their careers and juggling children and marriage…