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.
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."
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.
In Asia, where out-of-wedlock births are almost unheard of, no marriage essentially means no children. Birth rates are plummeting throughout Asia, and in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, rates have fallen well below replacement levels.
Kotkin's recent report on post-familialism, published by the Civil Service College in Singapore, focuses heavily on Singapore and on other Asian societies. Throughout the Far East, Kotkin finds, rampant modernism has collided with and subdued Confucian filial values, which emphasize tight family and intergenerational loyalty.
This collision is most jarring for women caught between the home and the workplace. Increasing respect in professional life clashes with lingering sexism, as women now highly valued at work find patriarchy still dominant at home, said Valerie Hudson, professor of public policy at Texas A&M and an expert on gender issues in Chinese culture.
"Men taught women that marriage was on men's terms," Hudson said, "and women learned the lesson that men taught them, and now that they have a choice, they are not interested in this male version of marriage."
Wilcox agrees. "There has been a huge shift in equality in the work sphere in East Asia, but that equality has not caught up on in the family sphere," he said.
In Taiwan, Kotkin's report notes, 30 percent of women between 30 and 34 are single. Thirty years ago, only 2 percent were. And in a 2011 poll of Taiwanese women under 50, he writes, "a huge majority claimed they did not want children."
Single in Singapore
In desperation, Singapore has shifted from an informal two-child policy in the 1970s to now offering cash premiums for children, which jump substantially upward for the third and fourth child. The official policy now encourages "three, or more if you can afford it."
"In Singapore," Wolfgang Lutz has noted, "women work an average of 53 hours a week. Of course they are not going to have children. They don't have the time."
Lutz came up with a widely noted metric holding that when a country's fertility holds steady below 1.5, a handful of structural, economic and cultural factors conspire to prevent the rate from recovering to replacement levels.
Singapore, along with Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and, of course, Japan, are all currently below Lutz's non-recovery tipping point.
"I was talking to a Singaporean woman who was very sharp," Kotkin said, "who told me, 'Look, if my company said to me tomorrow that I had to go to Shanghai for three months, I could do it. If I had children, I couldn't do it."
Kotkin also described a conversation at Singapore's Ministry of Population where he naively asked if they have a problem with people choosing not to have kids.
"No, you don't get it," he was told. "They don't even date."
One difficulty, Kotkin and his colleagues argue, is that although modern societies maintain a myth that the working generation is saving for its old age, in fact the burden falls heavily on their children. If today's generation does not produce enough children, a skewed "dependency ratio" emerges.
"Among the 23 most developed countries," write Kotkin and his colleagues, "the population 65 or older was roughly 9 percent in 1960; it is 16 percent today. By 2030, this could reach as high as 25 percent. Many countries, notably Germany and Singapore, by 2050 will have about 57 people over 65 for every 100 workers."
The burden is already immense. "In the United States, persons 65 and over received 7 times more in federal spending in 2000 per person than did children under age 18," noted demographer Philip Longman of the New America Foundation in 2004, "and this was before they enacted the hugely costly prescription drug benefit for seniors." Even factoring in education spending at the local level, total government spending favors seniors by roughly 3-to-1.
"And in the long term," wrote Jeff Wise recently in Slate, "on the order of centuries — we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity." That is, if fertility rates worldwide settled at the 1.5 percent currently common in Europe, by 2300 the world's population would fall to 1 billion.
The imbalance between raising the next generation and caring for the last creates perverse incentives, Phillip Longman argued in 2004. "As modern societies demand more and more investment in human capital," Longman said, "this demand threatens its own supply."
Valerie Hudson cites one radical answer to the burden of caring for the childless, a proposal first offered by Shirley Burggraf, an economist at Florida A&M: "A portion of each child's paycheck," Hudson said, "would go into a fund to pay the future pension benefits of that specific child's parents." This would differ from the current system, which taxes the young to care for for generalized elder care.
This would, she argues, help balance the costs of raising the next generation of workers — costs that the childless avoid, even as they invest in their own retirement funds.
"When we disconnected financial support for the elderly from reproduction, we pulled the rug out from under the last remaining economic benefit to raising children," Hudson said.
Longman's solutions, less radical than Burggraf's, would shift tax burdens to favor family formation. "Governments should also relieve parents of having to pay into social security systems," he argued. "By raising and educating their children, parents have already contributed hugely to these systems by providing essential human capital. Requiring parents to contribute payroll taxes as well is not only unfair, but also imprudent for societies that are already consuming more human capital than they produce."
Kotkin agrees, but he wants to look at geography as well as finances. Where Eric Klinenberg would make urban singleness more comfortable, Kotkin would favor the suburbs, which he calls the "nurseries of nations."
"High density is the death of demographic growth," Kotkin said "In America, England, France and Japan, the more you force people into higher density, the more they simply don't have kids. Lack of space is huge factor."
"As long as the suburban alternative is affordable, your birth rate has a chance," Kotkin said. "America's advantage is immigration, space and relative affordability."
While recognizing geography and economics, Brad Wilcox doubts much can be done without a shift in culture and values.
Back and forth
In Los Angeles, Seth Toedter still thinks about having kids before he's done, but he recognizes that the window is closing. "It's an ideal I've always had," Toedter said, "but now that I'm faced with it, I have to consider all the practical implications of taking a leap like that."
"It's a back-and-forth thing," he said. "I feel the pressure, but I see it two ways. I see the enormous amount of responsibility it would take, and time, and money." And possible negatives haunt him. "What if it's a problem child? What if tragedy strikes?"
In part, Toedter thinks he has just not yet met his soulmate. "I always said that if I met the right person I would jump into all of that kind of stuff, no problem."
Toedter recognizes that at 38 the fertility window is closing for him and his dating pool. "I have friends who are maybe a year or two older than me who Internet date, and they talk about how they have a very small window they are operating with now, and how they can't afford to be too choosy."
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