On "NBC Nightly News" last week, anchor Brian Williams reported that, for the first time in history, there are more U.S. adults who are single than who are married.
He quoted economists who are saying this is a significant development because of its implications: “More renters than buyers, fewer children and vastly different spending habits.”
Well, guess what? It will change a lot more in this country than our spending habits. The trend toward chosen singleness and chosen childlessness will change the very fiber of our society.
Let us suggest five sweeping consequences of a continuing trend away from marriage and parenthood:
1. It will dramatically reduce our economic security. Families are not only places where parents nurture and raise children, they are places where people take care of each other and where grown children care for aging parents and grandparents. As longevity increases, there are more and more elderly folks who need some assistance. The worst possible demographic combination is more and more old people and fewer and fewer young people to care for them. The inevitable economic result of increasing singles and decreasing marrieds is the “inverted pyramid,” where a smaller and smaller workforce has to pay the taxes required to support a larger and larger elderly population. Frankly, the future looks ominous for our children who will grow up as part of the “too small” workforce. And, as demographer Joel Kotkin points out: “A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future-oriented requirements of children. Since older people vote more than younger ones, and children have no say at all, political power could shift toward non-childbearing people” (“The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” Newgeography.com, Oct. 10, 2012).
2, It will undermine our societal motivation and gradually decrease our productivity and abundance. As pointed out by Nick Schulz, author of "Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure," falling birthrates can affect entrepreneurialism because young people are such a driving force. Society, in turn, could lose its "dynamism" in the areas of culture, economics and technology. Also, statistics show that married people with children earn more, save more and spend more than single individuals.
3. It will make our living patterns less economical and more wasteful. Living together as families is a much more efficient way to live than one person to a house. In some cities, a majority of homes are now occupied by one single individual. Stockholm, Sweden, is an example, where 60 percent of households have only one resident, according to a New York Times editorial written by Eric Klinenberg. There are no economies of scale in this kind of situation, and just try to imagine the Swedish government trying to meet the welfare and medical needs as the population ages. Its only alternative will be raising taxes even further as that 60 percent needs elder care and lacks the families to provide it.
4. It will change our outlook and our collective character, pushing us into more self-focused attitudes and paradigms that do not bode well for the broader society. It is through the responsibility and sacrifice of marriage and parenting that we develop many parts of our morality and our character. David Brooks of the New York Times put it well when he wrote, “People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.”
5. It will result in increasing numbers of people who are missing out on life’s greatest joys. That is just our personal opinion, of course. But as detailed in a previous column, the National Marriage Project from the University of Virginia does offer evidence that married people, with or without children, have significantly less depression than singles; and 57 percent of married women with children felt their life had an important purpose, while only 40 percent of women without children felt the same.
Now, of course, many will say, “Don’t be so worried about how other people live. Let everyone choose his or her own path. What others choose won’t affect you. It doesn’t matter.”
Well, the fact is that it does matter, and it affects everyone. Where dramatically increasing numbers are choosing not to marry and not to have kids, it not only robs them of their best chance for long-term growth and happiness but also robs all of us of the dream of living in an improving, progressing society where children can grow up with as much or more potential and as many opportunities as we had.
We need to work together to restore that dream.