We are conditioned to accumulate and hoard wealth. I do not know if this because we have innate nest-building instincts or if it is a result of our economic structures. This post is not to discuss why we build wealth, but to spend a moment to consider what I think is an important implication of this conditioning: the atomisation of communities and families.
Exhibit A: Growing up, my nuclear family lived minutes walk from my aunt, uncle and cousins in the Eastern suburbs of London. We were in and out of each other’s houses constantly. Now, we have all moved into our own spaces. We see each other less, we talk less.
I have a large and loving extended family. I’ve always thought that my South Asian heritage emphasised and continues to emphasise these family bonds, but I wonder if it was also in some portion down to wealth (or lack of it). My parents, many of my relatives and many other South Asians in the UK emigrated to the UK as teenagers with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Over the years, this generation worked hard to build wealth and a platform for their families, often doing tough, menial jobs. They survived difficult times (they tried to save as much as they could from low salaries, and 1970s London was a very different place in terms of acceptance of racial difference) through close connections with their families and communities. They often lived in double-digit numbers in three bedroom houses, aiming to build a life for their children. They did so. In many cases managed to buy houses, build businesses or get better jobs.
I was born and educated here, as were my brother and my cousins. Upon my South Asian heritage was superimposed a layer of our UK (at least London) values – some frothy combination of capitalism, with its desire to make a market of any space, and Kantianesque ideals of valuing each individual (as opposed to a utilitarian view) on which our modern moral frameworks are built. I did not grow up in a double-digit house. My parents were not wealthy but, by the time they had me, they had their own space. When I was young, this space was still shared with my parent’s siblings for periods of time. Even in my early teens, I was lucky to get to live with my aunt and uncle for a number of years when my parents experimented with a building life back in Kenya. This sharing of space built a closeness of relationship that I do not think could have been built in any other way. Now I am an adult and my cousins are adults. I have my job and they are all high-powered professionals. Each of us now has our own house. I believe that we are all still close enough that, should the need be there we would still share but, being frank, this separation will necessarily mean more distance as we move forward. Certainly, our children are not likely to be living with each other in anywhere near the same way.
Exhibit B: We moved house a few moons ago. A number of close friends offered to help. I refused. They are busy people, I thought. If I need help, I can just pay some movers.
As we get wealthier I think two things combine which result in greater distance. The first is that we want better, nicer things. The second is that because we can afford help, we no longer ask for it from our friends. We do not want to impose if we do not need to. Both of these were probably at play when I reflect on Exhibit B, and especially the second. This was a poorly thought out decision, one I deeply regret.
Most of my time with friends these days is built around meals or drinks. It is inevitably a lot of catching up, a lot of small-talk. Sometimes it goes beyond, but much, much less often than I’d like. We all know that our best time with friends is not in catching up but in sharing experiences – letting my friends help me move would have been a wonderful, deeply personal example of this. It would have added another layer to these friendships. Alas, I let wealth get in the way.
I’ve thought about this since and, as a result, I see it everywhere. We have nannies instead of grandparents looking after our little ones. We want the professional paint job, the flawless walls and not the amateur version our friends would probably do. As a result, we miss opportunities for the laughs, tears and love that is the soul of shared experiences and the resulting deep relationships.
Exhibit C: My mother was a force of nature. She had time, love and energy for people. As a result, the doors to our house were open to all; we had a string of friends, family and relatively random folk living with us over the years. We were not wealthy, but the doors were open without formality. I do not have anywhere near that level of openness to long-term “guests” (my mum would never have used that word).
There is less and less comfort with people just popping over, let alone staying over. Wealth has brought (bought?) a heightened sense of formality. Things that were not issues have become issues, things need to be done in a proper way. I need to ensure that we have a spare bedroom and bathroom and lovely smelling soaps. I am guilty of being increasingly focused on the materiality of the experience our friends and family feel alongside what was much more the focus – the relationships I was building.
We want guests in our space on our terms. We no longer need others, so we are less willing to bend to their whims. We would certainly not be entertaining the prospect of long-term house guests lightly. How might they impact my day-to-day life? It’s going to be so annoying!
The result? We might be gaining something (I’m not exactly sure what) but it certainly feels like we are losing something. People are less part of our lives than they used to be.
Exhibit D: It was early days in my career. A group of early-, mid- and late-twentysomethings, including myself, were beachside in Miami, sipping cocktails on an away day. The conversation turned to living situations. I remember feeling embarrassed to say that I lived at home with my parents whilst others were talking about how great it was to leave home.
Within the cultural elites that I roll with there was not only a lack of thinking about what we might be losing but an active celebration of the independence we craved – the independence that society tells them they must have and deserve. I understand this – we are lucky enough to live in a time when many of us have the means to build our lives in our way, and we are encouraged to do so. What I think we miss is the costs – perhaps as they happen much further down the line and so we discount them heavily. These costs include the potential for loneliness, fast becoming one of the most important health issues of our time. They include mental health challenges. They include greater pressure on social cohesion* as we spend more time with people like us rather than the ragtag of random personalities in our families and our early friendships.
Note that a capitalism loves this independence; it inherently values it in GDP growth. As we each become our own island, we need to self-sustain. We each need our own kettle, our own garden, our own X Box. We no longer can share with our little brothers or our parents. We also need to buy the services that we used to do for free for each other – the school pickups, the care in times of illness and old age. These services are seen as a burden on our time rather than things we do out of love and a sense of duty and so we are happy to purchase them. It’s a growth bonanza!
What I’ve written sounds like I’m harking back to better times. I’m not sure I am. I just wanted to take a minute to reflect. I believe there are costs to economic progress and to wealth accumulation that I think we should not take for granted. Atomisation of our families and communities is one such cost, and one that I feel may be more expensive than we have bargained for. I’m lucky, my family bonds are still strong. I know from the work my old company is doing across the UK that this is not the case for all of us, and it may be a tide that we want to stem. How do you feel?
*The social cohesion point is an interesting one. Wealth appears to be stratifying us.The time when we are wealthier than we have ever been is also the time of the greatest inequality the world has ever seen. We typically actively marry within our own social class. When we can, we move to “nice” neighbourhoods to get away from the riff-raff. At the extreme, we live in gated communities, protecting even our public spaces. Indeed, what are nation states but huge gated communities? But this food for thought for another post on another day.