This is a complex time with complex challenges that threaten the world as we know it. What is the biggest danger right now? Which problem poses the largest and most immediate threat to humanity? Of all the serious concerns that are talked about, which one is going to impact our lives the most? Which of the things we worry about will end up hitting us hardest and making the most dramatic differences in how we live and in the kind of world our children inherit?
As we've raised a family and researched and documented, our nominees are:
1. The growing gap between rich and poor. There is more and more separation between haves and have-nots (see Newsweek's "The Real Reason for the Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor," publish Sept. 28, 2015), which deepens political divisions and polarizes our society, sowing the seeds of violence and revolution.
2. Climate change. Our world is slowly turning into an oven (see "Time-Lapse NASA Video Of Us Turning Earth Into An Oven" published on vocativ.com in January 2015). Polar ice caps melting, oceans rising, ever more climate disturbances and natural disasters, all at a seemingly faster and faster pace (see "Sea Ice Extent Sinks to Record Lows at Both Poles" on nasa.gov on March 22, 2017, and "Sea Level Rise" on nationalgeographic.com).
3. The religious culture clash. Terrorism and jihad continue to spread and Armageddon prophecies suddenly seem more real (see "Terror attacks in developed world surge 650 percent in one year" on cnn.com published Nov. 16, 2016).
4. The decline of religion and faith. On religious affiliation polls (such as "Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing, they’re becoming more secular" published by the Pew Research Center at pewresearch.org on Nov. 11, 2015), by far the fastest growing answer is “none” and the concern is, how will society do without the morality-framing influences of faith-based institutions?
5. The rapid and radical changes in families. Marriage rates plunge while casual cohabitation, chosen singleness and the number of children born out of wedlock soar; women have fewer children and have them much later and the number of young people shrinks while the number of older people swells (see Pew Research Center's "The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families" published in November 2010; "One's a Crowd" by Eric Klinenberg, published on nytimes.com on Feb. 4, 2012; National Vital Statistics Report's "Births: Preliminary Data for 2012.")
Make no mistake, these are all stunningly important problems with enormous consequences.
And all of them are happening more rapidly and with more intensity than we could have imagined 10 or 20 years ago.
But the one that is changing the world fastest, and the one with the biggest and most immediate consequences is No. 5, the breakdown of the most basic unit of society — the decline and disappearance of the family.
Just in the last couple of decades, statistical minorities have become majorities. Cohabitation is the norm, not marriage (see Pew Research Center's "The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families"). More adults in the U.S. are now single than married (see "One's a Crowd" by Eric Klinenberg, published on nytimes.com). In several Western countries, very nearly as many children are now born out of wedlock than in, according to the National Vital Statistics Report's "Births: Preliminary Data for 2012."
In England, a majority of women of childbearing age say they would rather buy a house than have a child (see "Young women put off starting a family for fear it will damage their looks, career and lifestyle" by Emily Allen and published on dailymail.co.uk on Sept. 14, 2011). More than half of Hispanic children in the US are now raised in fatherless homes, and among African American families, seven in ten kids are raised without a dad (see "Fathers disappear from households across America" by Luke Rosiak, published on washingtontimes.com on Dec. 25, 2012). And in 2014, for the first time, more than one half of the countries on the planet (116 of the earth’s 224 recognized sovereign nation-states) have birthrates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman (see "How the world’s populations are changing, in one map" by Max Fisher, published on washingtonpost.com on Oct. 31, 2013; and "The World Factbook" on cia.gov). (See our book "The Turning: Why the State of the Family Matters and What the World Can Do About It," published by Familius in 2014, pages 19-20.)
Many of the traditional functions of families, from procreation to nurturing and from values-teaching to identity-providing, are being ignored and abdicated; and these are societally essential functions that other, larger institutions are incapable of handling.
As the cult of the individual grows and pushes aside the paradigm of the family as the basic institution of society, we become a more selfish culture, more interested in preserving our own options and providing for our own comfort than in accepting the responsibility and sacrifices of marriage and parenting.
And the results and ramifications are rapid — they happen in one generation — faster than global warming, faster than the growth of the income gap or the decline of religion, and faster and more pervasive than the spread of radical terrorism.
As millennials turn away from marriage commitment and parental responsibilities, and as older generations mirror and follow these trends rather than bucking them, the whole culture changes rapidly and we find ourselves moving into an era where people lose their roots, their identity, their sense of place and of belonging and the ideals of stewardship and responsibility that went with it.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, “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.”
As people let the idea and the ideal of family slip away, the economy inevitably suffers because there is no adequately sized rising generation to fill the workforce and to provide for the growing elderly population — and the gap between rich and poor gets wider and spawns revolution, terrorism and global culture clashes. Climate change accelerates because we focus more on our individual prosperity and fulfillment than on leaving a habitable world for our children. And faith, morality and religion slump because their foundation and motivation — the teaching the next generation — has begun to disappear.
No. 5 is not only the biggest danger because of how fast it is happening or how much it influences the other four, it is also the overriding concern because it is a slippery slope that has a momentum that is very, very hard to reverse. Once it becomes culturally and societally “normal” not to seek or to accept the commitment of marriage and the responsibility of children, the easy choice is always not to. “Looking out for number one” is the path of least resistance and of the most immediate personal rewards, and for the immediate future, it looks better and easier than the commitments and stewardship of family. It is not until middle or older age that the loneliness and purposelessness of this individual-over-family choice begins to manifest itself, and by then it is too late.
Going back to our list of the five problems, the most disturbing thing of all is to us that the most sweeping and dangerous problem is getting the least attention. In our observation, climate change and jihad receive vastly more ink, airtime, column inches, and publicity than the declining family.
What is needed is a strong voice advocating a return to a more family-centric culture. Not a voice invoking guilt or preaching responsibility but one that celebrates commitment, popularizes parenting, validates values and bolsters balance and helps people, particularly the millennial generation, see that it is the extra-centered family path, not the self-centered individual path that maximizes one’s chances for long-term fulfillment and happiness.
The voice needs to be that of a trend-setter and a trend-bucker, not a trend follower. It needs to be a voice that is walking its talk; a voice that can show the evidence of its own success; a voice that can speak to all the world. It needs to be the voice of an entity with the resources and the creativity to make the message attractive and compelling, and it needs to be the voice of a catalyst that can rally other entities and influencers to join the cause.
It may be that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and the culture that surrounds it — is best positioned and best prepared and best funded to become this critically needed, world-wide family-advocating voice. The more this culture goes opposite to the world’s anti-family trends, the more of a catalyst it can become to unite other faiths and other like-thinking people, and to present an attractive, alternative model where family is the center and the basic institution of our lives, of our economy and of our society.
It’s what the world needs most!
And those who believe that family is the most important thing in eternity need to also show that it is the most important thing here in this world.