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Post-familialism debate heats up

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 7:45 a.m. MST

The debate is on between the demographer and the sociologist over whether new trends in family (non)formation are troubling, indifferent or actually healthy.

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The debate is on between the demographer and the sociologist over whether new trends in family (non)formation are troubling, indifferent or actually healthy.

Demographer Joel Kotkin, who coined the term "postfamilialism," discussed the demographic shift toward living alone on Minnesota Public Radio earlier this month.

In the other corner is Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who wrote the recent book "Going Solo." Klinenberg gave an interview in Smithsonian Magazine earlier this month, noting that the numbers would be "quite literally unbelievable were it not for the fact that those rates are even lower than the rates of living alone that we see in comparable European cities."

"Today, there are more than 32 million people living alone — according to the latest census estimates," Klinenberg told Smithsonian, "32.7 million — and that’s about 28 percent of all American households. This is an enormous change. Instead of being most common in the West, it’s now most common in big cities, and it's common in big cities throughout the country. In Seattle, and San Francisco, and Denver, and Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and Chicago, there are between 35 and 45 percent of the households have just one person. In Manhattan, where I live, about one of every two households is a one-person household."

Unlike Kotkin, Klinenberg sees the trends as benign, or even positive. The arguments of both men were featured in an in-depth Deseret News article last month.

Earlier this week, Kotkin expanded on his critique of postfamilialism in the Daily Beast, arguing that behavior that seems optimal for a given individual can be highly destructive to society.

Part of Kotkin's argument is economic. "As younger Americans individually eschew families of their own, they are contributing to the ever-growing imbalance between older retirees — basically their parents — and working-age Americans, potentially propelling both into a spiral of soaring entitlement costs and diminished economic vigor and creating a culture marked by hyperindividualism and dependence on the state as the family unit erodes," he wrote in the Daily Beast.

Kotin's argument in the MPR debate went beyond economics. He argued that there are vital traditions and human understandings that are passed on only through families.

He also argued that family connections stretch people in ways that they tend to avoid when living alone. “One of the interesting things about families is that you don’t get to choose your family. You’re kind of stuck with them. And so very often you end up working with and being concerned with people who in your other guises you would never have anything to do with," Kotkin said.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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