The demographic problem facing the industrialized world isn’t just about empty cribs and the empty treasuries when there aren’t enough young workers to pay the retirement and health benefits their parents and grandparents expect. It’s also about quality of life. The consumer society is eating its young; people who live in the most affluent societies humanity has ever known are finding it increasingly difficult to start families and raise children. American houses today are filled with more stuff than ever before, but more and more Americans live in broken or struggling families.
Families are in crisis, with two parent households becoming more rare and many children growing up in poor and unstable circumstances as a result. Older people also face greater isolation; it is a quiet crisis most of the time, but in Europe, the United States and Japan a weakening of family ties is leaving more older people on their own with little or no support or contact from extended but atomized families. Obviously each of these problems takes a different shape in different countries, but in many places around the world we can see the same paradox at work. The industrial revolution was supposed to generate and in fact did generate unprecedented affluence. All over the world people have more and better food, more and better health care, more and better housing than their ancestors dreamed possible. Social safety nets even when incomplete provide levels of personal security that past generations never knew.
Yet with all this affluence and security, it is getting harder and harder for people to do the basic things that historically most people have most wanted to do: build a happy and stable marriage, raise a family, and enjoy rich lives in community with family and friends.
There are some who pooh-pooh all this talk about a crisis in our society’s reproductive system. Women are having fewer children, they say, because with more control over their own bodies and with cheap and reliable contraception, they have more choices than they used to. And if fewer women are ending up in stable marriages, this too reflects more personal freedom, not less. Women can live on their own; gay people no longer have to hide in conventional marriages. The marriage and birth rates are down because it was scarcity and ignorance rather than affinity and choice that kept people together and breeding in the past.
Perhaps, but in the United States those descriptions don’t really cover the facts. It’s the poor who aren’t getting married; in many ways as Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 showed, the higher up you go in the social and economic scale, the more likely you are to be in a stable marriage. The upper middle class is where stable families and two parent households still flourish.
Moreover, the ancient human drive to reproduce still seems to be at work. Never in human history have so many spent so much on advanced methods of conception; affluent couples who have left reproduction too late or have fertility problems drop tens of thousands of dollars on intrusive and difficult techniques in a long quest to have a child. We’re all aware that one of the things the rich do more than the rest of us is to procreate; there are lots of successful men who want what I once heard one to call a “second litter” of kids to go with the trophy wife.
Step outside of the world of the one percent, and the picture begins to change. Economic costs and career considerations are clearly depressing the fertility of the upper middle class. Years of school and professional struggle must go by before young women are grounded in careers and married long enough for child bearing to feel possible. And the enormous costs of raising children (including the opportunity cost to your career) force many couples to have fewer children than they ideally would like.
Farther down the social scale, it is clearly not the case that many lower income women having children outside of wedlock are doing so as a consequence of economic and social empowerment. Today one-third of all American children are raised by single mothers, and this trend is only accelerating: more than half of births to women under thirty happen outside of marriage. Of that one-third of children, about half live under the poverty line, and single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than married women. Half of single mothers have an income of less than $25,000 per year. Single parents are the demographic least likely to have health care insurance, and 90 percent of all TANF families are single mother households. The statistics go on and on and on.
This is not a picture of affluent and empowered women making unconventional, bold choices. It is not a picture of gay couples with adopted kids sitting down to a tasteful brunch in SoHo. It is a picture of people struggling against difficult circumstances to have children and to build a home and family in which they can flourish. The disproportionately high number of single African American mothers is related to the disproportionately high number of young African American men in the prison system. As the socio-economic condition of the white working class has deteriorated in recent decades, we also see a pattern of more children born out of wedlock, more single heads of households, more children living in poverty and experiencing the problems that are associated with that.
Our society is not facing a demographic downturn, weakening family ties and a crisis of child welfare because we are becoming more liberated and free wheeling; the successful people in America aren’t particularly free wheeling and it would take more cynicism and hard heartedness than Via Meadia can summon up to call the growing numbers of poor and working class Americans living in fragmented families without social or economic security a bunch of liberated hipsters celebrating the diversity of their empowering lifestyles.
In the midst of plenty, at least plenty of the kind of stuff you can buy at Walmart and CostCo, the American family is wasting away.
Some of this of course is due to jobs crisis; I’ve written about that in past posts and called it the single most important issue that American society needs to address. The decline in manufacturing employment, now morphing into a decline in clerical and even professional employment as automation takes hold in new fields, is a social challenge on the scale of the industrial revolution. We are losing the old jobs faster than we are creating the new ones, and the consequences are felt across every dimension of our national life. This jobs crisis is a principal driver of income stagnation and the sorry state of the lower middle class.
America’s energy surge is going to help some with this problem; there will be many new blue collar jobs at good wages in the extracting and refining fields, and booming investment in energy intensive manufacturing processes will create many more. Building the homes, roads, schools and stores that the energy and manufacturing workers need will add more. Fracking is going to make a lot of babies, and the incomes and tax revenues it generates will help give those babies good homes and good schools.
But the energy surge won’t solve all our problems. Automation is going to continue eating away at the clerical and professional jobs: stuff-processing factory jobs and information-processing office jobs will continue to be vulnerable to advances in IT. Until we build a service based economy that brings the supply and demand of labor into a better balance, both employment and incomes will continue to be serious problems for the country at large and for young people trying to start and build families.
One should also note that the jobs problem is unevenly distributed through the country. In inner cities, youth unemployment is at Greek and Spanish levels. Thanks to a combination of factors (and high costs, regulations and taxes cannot be ignored), very few jobs for young and semiskilled or unskilled workers are being created in American cities. Without reasonably stable employment it is almost impossible for young people to build stable families; it should not surprise anyone that whole zones of our cities have ceased to produce stable households in which two adults work together to nurture and raise the next generation.
But while the jobs problem, and the resulting income squeeze and absence of job security that so many young people face today is an important obstacle to the formation of stable families, it is not the only such obstacle. As the blue model slowly disintegrates, it creates an increasingly toxic environment for young people in general and creates circumstances that make it intensely difficult for the young to succeed at what for most people has always been and remains today the most important tasks of this stage of life — achieving economic independence, finding a true soulmate and starting a family.
One problem is the peculiar growth of our increasingly dysfunctional education-credentialing complex. Americans are spending too much time in school and much of the time in school is wasted. As a result, students only enter the workforce in their middle to late twenties, and when they do, they are already burdened with debt. The multiplication of useless degrees, the credential inflation by which the BA today gets what a high school diploma did fifty years ago and a master’s degree is the new minimum starter credential for a whole range of jobs that used to require only the bachelor’s: this isn’t just bad because of the lost time and the debt. It’s bad because being a full time student in the United States often means remaining in an artificially prolonged adolescence. Many (not all, but too many) students remain economically dependent, experientially deprived, and unwilling or unable to make mature decisions about the big questions of life.
Even when they finally emerge from the cocoon of extended education and dependency, it takes time for them to become fully grounded in the world of work and adult life. Their educational experience is so different from the world of work, and has prepared them so poorly for adult life, that many new college or grad student grads still feel like adolescents — tentative, unsure, trying to read the unfamiliar contours of the adult world — well into their early thirties.
Twenty-something adults are the group on which America’s future depends. If twenty-somethings aren’t ready or able marry and start families, this essential job won’t get done. Yet, as a recent article in the Atlantic points out, young adults are in many ways the most endangered and vulnerable group in the country. They are more likely to face bouts of poverty and unemployment than older Americans. They have higher expenses and fewer savings. And the net result of a host of pro-middle aged, pro-elderly and pro-status quo blue policies is to pile new burdens on the backs of exactly this cohort in the population.
It is not surprising that people in this situation see the pillars of adult life — institutions like marriage, life steps like having children — as something to postpone. While they are biologically mature many are still emotionally and economically adolescent. And many of them are broke or only precariously employed.
Twenty-somethings have much to contribute. Many of the leaders of the American Revolution were in their twenties; twenty-somethings throughout history have led adult lives, exercised significant responsibilities, launched important enterprises and, of course, married and raised children. We need to build a society that offers youth more responsibility and better opportunities and does a better job with the transition between child and adult roles.
Work, play, education, family, worship: for most of its pre-industrial existence humanity integrated these basic activities into daily life. Farm kids played games, did chores and learned about the world from one day to the next. The family was a production unit and all the members of the household, from the four year old bringing in the hen eggs to the grandparents played a part in making things work. The transition from childhood to adulthood was neither as drawn out or as fraught as it is today; as you grew older you learned more, did more work and assumed more responsibility until, usually in your late teens or very early twenties, you were ready to launch out on your own.
People were much poorer then, but many families were stronger. The reason was that in our system, the family is socially and biologically necessary, but it is economically peripheral. The family is a consumption unit; a columnist for the Financial Times refers to her two children as “Cost Centre One” and “Cost Centre Two.” That’s an accurate description of children in today’s world: a family I know well estimated the cost of a third child (in expenses and lost income as Mom would have to stay home with three) at one million dollars. There has not been a fourth.
Family today is becoming a luxury good; children in the upper middle and upper classes are signs of conspicuous consumption. Increasingly we are adding to the economic burdens of child rearing. Not only must families find a way to pay for the increasingly expensive and prolonged educational process our society demands; from mandatory expenses like car seats, from day care up through the increasingly professionalized (and expensive) proliferation of after-school activities and enrichment programs, the investment needed to get an American kid ready for adulthood has become immense.
One is reminded of the Irish elk, Megalocerus giganticaeus, whose antlers, evolved on males as a sexual display to lure females, ended up being so large and unwieldy that some biologists believe they contributed to the species’ extinction. The American way of childrearing has become so cumbersome, so expensive, so all-consuming, that we are evolving ourselves out of business.
Meanwhile American community life is withering on the vine. It’s not just that we are bowling alone; many parents don’t even have time to bowl at all. Most parents are in the workforce, and with both budgets and time stretched to the utmost, it is not surprising that church and community networks are showing signs of wear. The competitive pressures of the workplace drive more and more people to work longer and harder (upper middle class people work longer hours at professional jobs, lower middle class people take on overtime or often have to work more than one job to make ends meet) and there is less time and less money available for building social capital and community life.
The one percent are having as many kids as they want, and the alpha males in the one percent can have successive waves of offspring from successive wives. The rest of the herd isn’t faring so well, and many Americans have to make difficult choices that for some mean having fewer children than they would like and for some mean postponing childbirth so long that by the time they are economically and socially ready, their biological clock has run down.
The crisis in family life and child raising points toward one of the core convictions behind Via Meadia: the blue model isn’t just problematic because it isn’t working well anymore. It is problematic because it is a flawed and imperfect social ideal. The gradual erosion of what we call the blue social model is often told as a story of Paradise Lost: nostalgic social critics sing hymns of praise to the Betty Crocker world of the 1950s, an imagined utopia when everyone was in the middle class, unions were strong, and all jobs were for life. Aside from the conformity, racism and gender discrimination that made that era anything but idyllic for many people, there were other, deeper problems.
The blue social model, something that the Left used to call Fordism or even Taylorism, was grounded on a sharp distinction between work and leisure. In the industrial age, workers did repetitive, mind-numbing tasks. You didn’t get satisfaction from your assembly line job in the widget works; you got your satisfaction from all the things that boring and dirty job paid for. Instead of the agrarian life of the family farmer, where work, family, and leisure were all mixed together, industrial society segregated the different dimensions of life from each other. Women and children were segregated from the dirty and harsh world of work; even physically, families were increasingly in suburbs far from the dark, Satanic mills where the business of life went on.
This social order may have been a reasonable response to the challenges of industrialization, but it is very far from being the ne plus ultra of human aspiration. The shift to an information economy means on the one hand that the stable jobs and corporate structures of the blue social model are melting away, but on the positive side it opens the door to a much more fully human way to live. The new economy and a new society built on its promise has the potential to reintegrate work and family life, to strengthen neighborhoods, rebuild voluntary associations and allow us all to live more integrated and fulfilling as well as more affluent lives.
The time has come for Americans to begin once again to dream of a way of life that is better and more fulfilling than what we or our parents have known. One place to start is to think about how our society can and should change to become a friendlier place for twenty-somethings who want to get on with one of the principle tasks of adult life: creating strong and stable homes and producing the next generation.
Right now, our pro-geriatric and pro-middle age policy biases hit twenty-somethings hard. As cities and states shift spending from providing services today to paying pensions to yesterday’s workers, the twenty-somethings take it on the chin. There are fewer city and state jobs for them to compete for, and the services they rely on are being cut to the bone. Often with the support of labor leaders, when wages and benefits are slashed, young workers eat all the cuts while older workers get to keep their current salaries and retirement benefits. Obamacare represents yet another mass subsidy of the middle aged by the young, with a marked transfer of income from young men to middle aged women. Skyrocketing tuition saddles young people with heavy loan payments at the time of life when their incomes are lowest.
We are putting insupportable burdens on our young people. The results — fewer children overall, and poor living conditions for growing percentages of children brought into the world — are the natural and unavoidable consequences of a dysfunctional blue model society as the social model gradually becomes obsolete.
If America isn’t working for people trying to start families in their twenties, it isn’t working at all. The American dream has always been a dream about opportunity, and from colonial times it has been young people who made the most of that opportunity. As we think about remaking the American dream for a new century, we need to think about how this can once again become the best country on earth for young people to start a family and raise their kids. Getting that right is the key to almost everything else.