The untold story of 2012 is how “not” became the new relationship normal — not married, not a parent, not a close friend, not a loyal customer, not a committed employee, not a Democrat nor Republican and not affiliated with organized religion. This flight from relationship flies in the face of a society that says individual relationships matter most, and where many organizations attempt to brand themselves as “relationship” focused. We speak in the poetry of relationships — home, family, friends, community, colleagues, customers, fellow citizens and even brothers and sisters in faith, but we increasingly live in the prose of divorce, single-parent families, transient community, alienated employees and customers, partisan political discourse and religious divisiveness.
For those keeping score, the unraveling of our relationships accelerated at home, work, in politics and in faith in 2012. For the first time, over 50 percent of children born to parents age 30-and-under will be to unwed mothers — with a poverty rate five times those of their married counterparts. This loss of two-parent families coincides with a two-decade trend, reports theAmerican Sociological Review, where close, go-to friends has dropped by a third and those with none has tripled. According to a 2012 Harris Interactive poll, the number of respondents who quit doing business with a company because of a bad experience rose to 86 percent compared to 59 percent four years ago. A MetLife survey earlier this year found that one-third of workers planned to leave their current employer by the year-end. Political parties, desperate for additional votes continue to hemorrhage members in key swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, losing over 200,000 party members to independent status over the past four years, according to Media Trackers, all part of a defection rate from political parties that has doubled the past 50 years. And, a just released Pew Research reports individuals unaffiliated with organized religion (the “Nones”) has increased from 15 percent five years ago to 20 percent now — an increase of one-third.
It is time for the social scientists, business and organizations experts, political scientists and theologians to step outside their silos and connect the dots — relationships over the past several decades across our society are trending negative at a rate of 30 to 50 percent. The cumulative destruction that accompanies this seismic, unrelenting shift is not sustainable. Democracy, capitalism, communities, businesses, faith-based organizations and family systems cannot withstand this relational disintegration.
So, whether you are a single mom, a social worker, CEO, or a political or religious leader — what are we to do about this big-time shift? Do we just admit defeat and give up on stronger, longer, more loyal, committed relationships? Or, do we look for ways to restore productive relationships. I suggest considering these three-steps.
First we need to be brutally honest about the relational trend and its impact. In spite of all the new strategies, social programs, powerful data, cool technology and flowery language — we are losing ground in relational satisfaction, trust, loyalty and retention. We seem to spend more in relationship building efforts and receive less. If we could just live “relationship-less” I think many organizations and individuals would do that — the problem is that the price is very high. We cannot build or afford the lives, the organizations or the society we want on the back of disintegrating relationships.
Second, we must embrace relationships as our most valuable and value-creating resource. The loss of relationship translates into a form of hidden and growing risk. Relationships are society’s great safety net. The former executive director of global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has wisely said: “The most important healthcare system in the world is a mother. How do you get things in her hands that she understands and can afford and can use?” We were built for relationships, and they often define the difference between life or death, poverty or wealth. Divorced men are six times as likely to suffer depression— divorced women are 3.5 times as likely — and men who suffer heart attacks and return home to live alone are four times as likely to die from a second heart attack as their married counterparts. As a volunteer working with Katrina victims in 2005, one of the things our team noticed is that many of those who wound up on rooftops did not have friends with cars. As John Ortberg has said, it is better to eat Twinkies together than eat broccoli alone.
According to Gallup, organizations scoring above the median in employee and customer engagement perform three times. greater on a series of financial metricsLikewise, an analysis of Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For found they outperformed their counterparts by a factor of four over seven years. Relationships are the elemental source of social, emotional and economic value.
Third, we must better understand the causes that have led to our relational decline. No one started out 50 years ago to undermine relationships. Rather, a series of wonderful advancements have delivered unintended consequences — relationships have been demoted. One of the key four advancements is technology. Technology certainly connects us in wonderful ways we could not have imagined, but it can also isolate. The worry that computers would start to act like humans has been replaced with concern that humans are now acting too much like computers — consumed with the speed, quantity and access of information. We can now access and control information without interacting with humans — by spying on Facebook and accessing new media and websites. No surprise that the American Academy of Pediatrics has coined the term “Facebook Depression” for those who become acutely isolated, or that the Menninger Clinic now calls Technology Addiction an official impulse disorder. The most inclusive younger generation ever with regard to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation now faces an unprecedented technology-enabled generational divide with seniors.
Worse, is how information and technology is used to attack and wound others. We had such high hopes for a more informed world. Yet beyond a certain point research has shown that more information does not increase our ability to make better discernments, but it makes us more confident and often arrogant. People dial-up talk-radio, cable news and blogs — invested in, profiting from and dedicated to the fight — that offer just the one-sided facts, opinions and shouting matches that reinforce their lust for feeling affirmed and superior. Cyber bullying and a vitriolic blogosphere leave many of us wounded. Our ability to respond immediately, broadly, emotionally — and if we want — anonymously can rupture relationships. The head of software development at my old company used to say, “Give a fool a faster tool, and what you get is a faster fool.” Faster, more assured and better-armed fools create an ever-increasing population of wounded souls who sooner or later return fire. The carnage tears apart the very fabric of our society — our relationships.
A new year awaits us, as does an alternative narrative — where we make relationships our highest priority — at home and work, in politics and faith. General Peter Pace, when head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the height of the debilitating sectarian violence of the Iraq war netted it out: “If the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor… this could come to a quick conclusion.” We must decide to love what unites us more than we hate what divides us — putting relationship above our inevitable differences and even our indifferences. And, it will require a different form of leadership — relational leadership that knows how to invite and engage in a way builds productive relationships.
It is time to work on a new, new normal — defined by what we “are,” vs. “not.”