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Single for life? The social costs of fewer families

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

Filmmaker Seth Toedter, 38 and single, says he isn't ready to settle down yet.

Alan Gibby, Deseret News

From his 26th floor window overlooking the East River and downtown Manhattan last summer, Seth Toedter enjoyed stunning vistas of the UN, Chrysler and Empire State buildings. Changing clouds brought swirling clouds and lightning storms. On the river, barges, tugboats, kayaks and floatplanes scurried, while the waterfront swarmed with humanity. There was even a Jewish wedding party, complete with ritual crunching glass.

While working on other projects in his apartment, the 38-year-old filmmaker plugged these high-rise perspectives into two short but captivating time-lapse films.

Toedter was in New York on a brief sabbatical from his day job in Los Angeles, where he edits a television series. His lofty East River perch was sublet from a high school friend, who, like Toedter, remains single at 38.

Pulling up stakes like this would not have been possible with a family, Toedter knows. "I see my friends who are locked down and don't have that anymore, and they tell me they miss that," Toedter said.

Toedter is part of a growing demographic of singles worldwide now aging into their middle years without forming families. Across the globe, birth rates are dropping, in part because couples are having fewer children, but also because fewer young adults are even living together — married or otherwise.

In the U.S., those living alone are now "tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type," according to Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.

About 22 percent of American adults were single in 1950. Today, more than 50 percent of adults are single, notes Klinenberg in "Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone," published in 2012. In 1950, he tells us, 4 million Americans lived alone, or 10 percent of households. Today, more than 32 million live alone, or 28 percent of households.

The dramatic shift has caught the attention of scholars and social commentators. Some, like Klinenberg, see the new way of living as inevitable, arguably healthy for the individuals involved, and something the state should support with more favorable public policies that make single living more convenient and ease the complications, including the difficulties of aging alone.

Others, like demographer Joel Kotkin and a number of his colleagues, see shattering implications for societies that fail to adequately replace one generation with another. The difficulty, they argue, is that modern societies place the burden of each retired generation on those currently working.

When the next generation is smaller than the last, a skewed "dependency ratio" results, squeezing ever fewer active workers to support more retirees, while still investing in roads and schools and saving for their own retirement.

A professor at Chapman University, Kotkin is the lead author of a new report on "The Rise of Post-Familialism," which he defines as a society in which "the family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of society," which Kotkin fears will result in falling birthrates and an inverted pyramid of aging retirees supported by dwindling youth.

While perspectives differ on social impacts and policy implications, all sides agree that a dramatic change is underway, challenging historic understandings of what it means to be human and calling into question public policies and social norms surrounding child bearing and aging.

OK alone?

Back in LA after his summer in New York, Seth Toedter lives in a beachfront enclave populated largely by single professionals who have a close-knit social scene, including frequent cookouts and ball games on the sand.

"My last four girlfriends all wanted to get married and have children," Toedter said. Ten years ago, he had a serious conversation with a girlfriend. "But she and I agreed that I wasn't ready for that kind of thing. It was pretty clear."

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