The Death of Relationships
New study on institutions and relationships says Washington has "veered off the map."
Atlanta teachers are accused of cheating. Yahoo bans telecommuting. A Rutgers basketball coach hurls balls and epithets at his players. Meanwhile, in Washington, the president and House Republicans can't or won't bridge their differences and regain the trust of voters.
These seemingly disparate strands have in common a single, sobering sociological trend: People today are more separate and at odds in their human connections than anytime on record.
That is the conclusion of a jarring report by Robert Hall, "Our Relationship Crash: The Biggest Story Never Told." Hall is an accomplished consultant and speaker on relationships and author of the 2012 book, This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis that Imperils Home, Work, Politics, and Faith.
Building on the work of Harvard professor Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community) and others, Hall's report places Washington's dysfunction in a broad historic-social context that is no less depressing than the political landscape.
"We're paying a heck of a price for the destruction of relationships, and we haven't seen anything yet if it plays out like we're seeing it now," Hall told me in a telephone interview. (Disclosure: His book quotes from one I coauthored in 2005, Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community.)
Hall's report adds to the conversation on human connections by creating a "Flight From Relationships" index that aggregates 16 metrics across home, work, faith, and politics. "While obviously not scientific (data from different research sources with different time frames), the FFR Index does illustrate a dramatic trend: Our flight from relationships is up 214 percent over five decades," Hall wrote.
Political junkies will find four of the measures familiar. First, Americans relate less to each other politically. The number of voters who identify themselves as ideologically extreme has jumped from 29 percent to 49 percent in the last four decades, Hall reports. "Somehow," he wrote, "we seem to be magnifying our differences and then joining like-minded, warring tribes."
Second, the relationship between Americans and their president is weakening. Hall said the Presidential Approval Gap (the difference in how voters of the president's party and voters from the opposing party view the chief executive's performance) has reached a record 76 percent under Presidents Bush and Obama.
He also cited the wealth of data showing how Congress itself is polarized. "Productive relationships have suffered as the ranks of the ideological extreme (have) increased 50 percent" since the 1970s, Hall wrote. President Obama has been accused of not working hard enough to get to know his political rivals. Fair or not, Obama is addressing his reputation for aloofness by meeting more regularly and socially with lawmakers.
Finally, the number of self-identified independent voters has increased to nearly 38 percent. "As politics has grown more partisan and divisive, aided by a media adept at monetizing strife," Hall wrote, "the flight from political parties has nearly doubled over the past 50 years."
In isolation, these political trends would be depressing enough. Hall's index gathers them with other cultural markers to raise questions about our ability as a nation to adapt to vast social change.
For example, married couples represent just 48 percent of U.S. households, and births to unwed mothers are up 726 percent in 50 years, Hall said. Both are measures of vastly changing, if not fraying, personal relationships.
At work, employee turnover, CEO turnover, and customer defections are rising dramatically. At church, the increase in members leaving one denomination for another has jumped from 15 percent in 1955 to 50 percent today.
Faith in organized religion (like so many other institutions) is down. The number of people who say they have little or no confidence in the church has jumped 75 percent since 1975, he said.
"Never in recorded history has a culture tried to raise half its children in single-parent households, or systematically changed business ownership at a rate in excess of twice a year or seen an informed citizenry become so rapidly divided over politics and faith," Hall wrote. "We have veered off the map into uncharted and dangerous relationship territory."
The school-testing scandal is partly a result of diminished relationships — teacher-to-student, teacher-to-parent, and employee-to-employer, Hall said.
Yahoo's ban on telecommunicating reflects the tension between workers' desires to maintain family relationships amid new economic challenges and a CEO's need to restore valuable face-to-face relationships. "With their new freedom, individuals are more productive but often to the detriment of their companies," Hall said.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice is an extreme, but not isolated, example of a leader who responds to new pressures inappropriately. With competition intensifying at almost every workplace, "We can't deal with weak leadership," Hall said, "so we struggle by with fear-based relationships."
You might have such a boss.
Hall continued, "The advances of extreme individualism, expansive organizations, and breakthrough information technology have yielded unintended consequences: The rate of change is outrunning our ability to adapt."
Sounds like a political problem.