National Edition

Single for life? The social costs of fewer families

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

Toedter sometimes wonders if he is a product of his generation — or if he would have been much the same in an earlier age. He leans toward the latter.

"I wonder if it's just who I am as a person," he said. "I can be alone by myself and be OK. I have lots of hobbies and projects to work on, so I don't fear being alone."

A Swedish model

Klinenberg's "Going Solo" offers an upbeat assessment of single life, reflecting many voices similar to Toedter's. To be alone is not to be lonely, he argues, outlining an array of social connections singles enjoy, usually built around an urban landscape.

Klinenberg's policy agenda is to make life easier for singles, rather than trying to return to an earlier age of familial connection.

"What if, instead of indulging the social reformer's fantasy that we would all be better off together," Klinenberg writes, "we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?"

His model is Sweden, where 47 percent of households have one resident and Stockholm itself, where 60 percent of households have one resident. He cites an "abundance of small apartments" and a "strong welfare state" that allows "citizens to pursue their autonomy knowing with confidence that the safety net will catch them if they fall."

Klinenberg suggests hopefully that aging singles may pressure government for urban planning policies tilted in their favor. Baby boomers, he wrote, "may well use their political clout to promote urban planning that benefit them first." His theory is that later generations of singles would then benefit from the resulting single-friendly infrastructure.

"He's talking about a different plane of existence," Kotkin said, one where so long as the individuals die happy, all is well.

Are they happy?

But Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and Director of the National Marriage Project, questions even real-time happiness. NMP's 2011 annual report offers evidence that married people, with or without children, have significantly less depression than singles, with or without children. Wilcox and his colleagues also found that both married and married with children scored much better on depression measures than did singles of either variety.

There is, Wilcox notes, some dispute over whether married parents are more "happy" than childless couples, given the inevitable challenges of raising children.

But Wilcox does note that those married with children are significantly more likely to report having purpose in life. Fifty-seven percent of married women with children felt their life had an important purpose, while only 40 percent of married women without children said the same.

And in any case, Wilcox argues that the dispute over happiness rather misses the point. He argues that public policy, public discourse and the social fabric generally needs to be adjusted to ensure that life satisfaction becomes bound up with families.

Countries from Sweden to Singapore have responded to this challenge by offering financial incentives to parents.

"But it's not just about incentives," Wilcox said. "We are talking at a much more fundamental level about what is the worldview, what is the narrative, the stories, the institutions — and do they paint a positive and powerful portrait of parenting?"

"A civilization that does not encourage its young adults to make the sacrifice to become parents is a civilization that will not stand the test of time," Wilcox said.

Asian anomie

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