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In our opinion: Search for individual fulfillment has costs for both singles and families

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 8:18 a.m. MDT

A man crosses an intersection in Tokyo Monday, Aug. 8, 2011. (associated press) A man crosses an intersection in Tokyo Monday, Aug. 8, 2011. (associated press)

Recently, New York Magazine published a provocative piece by the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel. Wurtzel achieved fame in her 20s for her autobiographical book "Prozac Nation," a poignant account of coping with clinical depression.

Wurtzel's most recent rambling confessional gives readers a glimpse into the life and mind of this well-known New York writer. It is not particularly appealing.

"It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up — one of the city's Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. … By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security — kids you do or don't want, Tiffany silver you never use — that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don't have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years."

Much could and has been said about Wurtzel's latest self-assessment; some have called it bracing and honest, others have characterized it as whiny and narcissistic. We share this portion of it not to evaluate Wurtzel as person or writer, but rather to give voice to the extraordinary plight — largely untold — of an entire generation suffering through what sociologists and demographers antiseptically refer to as "the second demographic transition of industrialized nations."

The first demographic transition, beginning in the early 19th century and continuing through the mid-20th century, was a simultaneous decrease in mortality and birth rates. Through this period, birth rates remained above replacement level. Importantly, childbearing and child rearing were broadly considered important, altruistic and permanent familial obligations, and relatively stable nuclear families devoted enormous emotional and financial resources to their children.

Demographers today, however, document a radically different pattern of childbearing and child rearing, with birth rates frequently falling below replacement levels. The eminent Dutch social scientist Dirk J. van de Kaa, for example, has observed in passive academic prose that "man-woman relations are increasingly seen as means of reciprocal emotional enrichment to which the birth of children may, or may not, be considered to be contributing. The personal value, dignity and freedom of the individuals involved in such relations are often stressed, as are the rights to self-fulfillment."

He continues, "The relationships are expected to be based on love and mutual attraction, are entered into freely and come to an end once they are lastingly disrupted, the latter independent of whether they have the form of a stable union or a marriage. Marriage as an institution providing economic security and as an essentially permanent arrangement aimed at reproduction and enabling the rearing of children is no longer universally felt to be necessary."

In this edition of the Deseret News, Eric Schulzke provides a compelling account of the social and personal ramifications of this tectonic shift in attitude and behavior, a weird world where neither marriage nor family is "felt to be necessary." The grave irony, of course, is that contemporary society's effort to indulge adult self-fulfillment over lasting commitment to spouse and permanent obligation to children is annihilating the intimate bonds that actually secure enduring fulfillment. Schulzke, for example, shares how those married with children are significantly more likely to report purpose in life than those in alternative households.

There is much to lament about a society that cannot replace its own human capital. Civilization requires a renewed cultural commitment to the stable marriage and family arrangements that have best nurtured children. But society and culture must also reclaim those it has jilted at the altar of individualistic self-fulfillment, those who Wurtzel identified as the "Lost Boys," those lonely adults who have not benefitted from the refinement and fulfillment afforded through marriage and committed parenthood. The arc of their lives can and must be reclaimed from constant existential crisis.

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