Single-serve America

From Fox News Insider comes word of a social and demographic milestone:

Single Americans are now the majority of the adult population, according to new government statistics. It’s the first time the total has risen above 50% since the Labor Department began keeping track in 1976.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said in its August report that about 124.6 million Americans were single, comprising 50.2% of the over-16 population.

Single Americans made up 37.4% of the population in 1976 and the percentage has steadily moved upward.

The percentage of adults who have never been married is 30%, up from 22% in 1976 and the percentage who are divorced, separated or widowed has risen from 15% to nearly 20% in that time span.

The subject was discussed on Fox’s “Outnumbered” panel show:

Andrea Tantaros believes part of the reason is that women are now earning more and have more career options, so they’re waiting longer to get married.

Jedediah Bila pointed out that it’s better to be single than “unhappily married,” noting how many friends rushed into marriage in their 20s only to get divorced.

Both of those observations are reasonable, although here we begin slipping into the uncomfortable side of social science, in which we discuss what people are doing versus what they should be doing in a healthy society.  The social engineers of the Left have never even momentarily paused to say that the behavior of any given group is “just the way things are,” or that their personal decisions should be respected without comment.  For decades, the Left has targeted groups and devised gigantic social programs to adjust their behavior in more “desirable” ways… often with highly undesirable, unexpected results.

There’s also a great difference between respecting individual decision-making, and discussing what we might encourage cohorts numbering in the millions to do.  Jedediah Bila’s point about being better of single than married to someone that makes you unhappy is indisputable common sense on the individual level, but allow me to rephrase the question on a vast social scale: is it a good idea to encourage young people to view marriage as something they should deal with later in life, after they’ve mastered various aspects of their personal relationships, career success, and even having children?

That’s exactly the way a large percentage of the younger generation views marriage today, according to some polls.  The trend for some years now has been for young people to marry less often, and wait longer before marriage.  Getting married is viewed as an optional accessory of family life; just about any combination of adults and children living under the same roof, in or out of wedlock, is an equally valid example of “family.”  Young poll respondents have literally described marriage as the last order of business to take care of, after all the bases have been covered in a fulfilling life.  It has increasingly become something young people don’t do – marriage is an arrangement to be made by middle-aged people secure in their independent lives.

And yet, the old values of marriage linger in the American imagination, perhaps as an idealized romantic daydream… or is it an ideal the latest wave of young people are growing serious about exploring?  An interesting recent study from Clark University found 86 percent of American young adults expected to get married for a lifetime, no matter what the current divorce statistics say.  73 percent of the respondents said they thought people should get married before having children.  61 percent – roughly equal between men and women – expected family life to require career sacrifices, but they still yearned to start their own families.  Those are some fairly old-fashioned attitudes for the younger set to hold.

It is commonly thought that the road to our new Single-Serve America was opened when it became financially and practically possible for women to live comfortably on their own, as Andrea Tantaros mentioned.  The real-world pressures that made it difficult for anyone to have a prosperous solitary life would seem to be long gone – not just the frontier era when women needed men around for provision and protection, but even earlier decades when it was tough for any single person to handle the chores and expenses of maintaining a household more elaborate than the most rudimentary apartment.  A young person of either sex with a halfway-decent job can get along just fine these days, and afford all the comfort and convenience of a family home.

Or can they?  Along with the dominance of single people among the younger generation has come a very pronounced tendency to live at home for longer, and to be treated officially as a “child” until much later in life, including ObamaCare’s infamous designation of 26-year-olds as “children.”  Time ran an article this week entitled “How to Avoid Paying For Your Kids Forever,” which begins with the example of a couple in their sixties who are still supporting their 25-year-old daughter, even though she lives over 1,200 miles away.  A study found that “two-thirds of people over 50 have financially supported a child 21 or older in the past five years.”

The Time article speaks of an officially-recognized new stage of life, “emerging adulthood,” which covers the span from teenager to 30-year-old… and sounds to my admittedly aging ear like a fancy name for extended adolescence, in which young people who aren’t really independent pretend they are, while Mom and Dad cover a good deal of their expenses.  Would it be rude and crotchety of me to wonder if some of the conventional wisdom about financial independence allowing young people to hold marriage off for decades is based on illusions?  Maybe it really does still take two to make a prosperous and comfortable household, even among people who don’t resort to government welfare to handle some portion of their food and shelter costs.

And then there’s the all-important issue of child-rearing.  As always when discussing marriage, I must point out that this is a numbers game.  Sustaining a population requires a very large number of people to have more than one child.  There is only so much time available on anyone’s biological calendar to have and raise these children.  Even when it’s possible to conceive relatively late in life, it’s very difficult to get started on a two- or three-child family after you’ve got all the career stuff squared away and arrived at middle age.  The great number of children our society requires must come from somewhere, and it’s vastly preferable for them to be raised by their married parents.  That’s just about the closest thing to “settled science” you’ll find in sociology.  It’s not denigrating alternative lifestyles to note the simple, empirically verifiable fact that a society only flourishes when a large number of married couples are raising multiple children.

For this reason, a generation of young single people is a troubling indicator for society.  It would be silly to point at individual people and say “Hey, kid, get married pronto, or you’re letting America down!”  This is not really a question of moral judgment or religion, although both naturally play large roles in shaping the way people view marriage.  But as a dispassionate proposition of social science – an impersonal analysis of what society needs, and should therefore encourage to whatever degree is possible – a generation of people who view marriage as a dusty old relic of the past is heading for trouble.  I would submit that generation is also being less than completely honest with itself about what it wants and needs out of life.

The question then becomes, “What can society do to change the way young people view marriage and children?”  If that Clark University poll is an accurate indicator, maybe they’re already starting to change their minds.  What sort of encouragement would modern culture permit, given the dominant culture’s knee-jerk reaction to anything perceived as old-fashioned or intolerant?  You can rest assured that if the restoration of marriage among the young was a liberal cultural priority, they wouldn’t care very much about respecting what “everyone thinks” right now, or appearing “out of touch.”  Alas, while there are many ways Big Government can exercise its power to break down family bonds and subsidize various alternative lifestyles, there’s not much the dominant culture would conceivably permit it to do that would reverse those processes.  We are, in no small part, a culture of single people because that suits the vision of the elite, and the political needs of a governing philosophy that has little traffic with independent, financially secure traditional families.