The US Census Bureau has a new report on young adulthood in America (PDF), and how it has changed since 1975. This finding jumped out at me:
Stunning. Less than half of Americans aged 18-34 say marriage and family are part of being an adult. All the other factors have to do with achieving personal autonomy. To be an adult, then, is to be free to exercise one’s will independently of obligations to others, including spouse and children. To choose spouse and children — formerly the most distinctive marks of adulthood — is now considered ancillary to adulthood by most American adults.
This is not a culture that cares to reproduce itself. It is a culture that lives in the everlasting present. The most important thing that every generation must do is produce the next generation. Not everyone is called to marriage and family life, of course, but most people have to understand themselves as so called, or we die off. We have created a society in which people have forgotten that lesson.
This didn’t start yesterday. In his 1947 classic Family And Civilization, Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman examined the changing role of the family throughout history, going back to antiquity. He wrote, of the US in the postwar era:
Parents must now try to rear a family under a social and legal system adjusted to those couples who do not want the paraphernalia of familism — common income, expenses, children, union for perpetuity, or serious familistic obligations. In our modern Western society the forgotten person is the man or woman who honestly and sincerely wants to be a parent. This affects our whole social system; it affects all the practicalities of life, from renting a house to economic advancement under our different forms of bureaucracy. If there are children, renting a house is difficult, changing jobs is difficult, social activities are difficult. In the words of Bacon, to have children is to give “hostages to fortune,” and one is no longer a free bargaining agent.
Zimmerman says further:
When the United States has exhausted the surplus population of the French-Canadians and the Mexicans — almost the only fertile peoples of the Western world now available to us — we too will begin the grand finale of the crisis.
This was written in 1947. In the 1960s, Quebec went through the “Quiet Revolution,” which took it from having the highest birthrate in Canada to the lowest. Today, the birthrate in Quebec is once again the highest in Canada … but still well below the replacement rate.
Mexico’s fertility rate began to collapse around 1970s. Today it is slightly above the US rate, and just at replacement rate. But it is expected to decline further.
There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.
Zimmerman was a social scientist. He was not a religious man. His study found the same cause in the fall of the Greek empire and the Roman empire in the West: decay of the family system, and all that followed it. Zimmerman said that there is no such thing as cultural determinism; that we have it within our power to avoid the fates of ancient Greece and Rome. But will we? Zimmerman:
The only thing that seems certain is that we are again in one of those periods of family decay in which civilization is suffering internally from the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work. The problem has existed before. The basic nature of this illness has been diagnosed before. After some centuries, the necessary remedy has been applied. What will be done now is a matter of conjecture. We may do a better job than was done before; we may do a worse one.
Again, he wrote in 1947; from the point of view of 2016, his question has been answered in the negative.
Zimmerman said that with the exception of the Christian churches — which he said was unpopular in his day (1947!) — there are no forces in the West fighting back against the decay of the family structure. Today, in 2016, can we say that the churches are still in the fight? I don’t think so — and if they are, they are a puny counterforce to the overwhelming atomism and self-centeredness of popular culture.
There’s something else, too. Mary Eberstadt has a theory that as goes the family, so goes religion, because the family is the strongest agent of transmission of religious belief. Indeed, sociologist Christian Smith has found that the strongest predictor of whether or not a child will still be religious in adulthood is whether or not his parents were religiously observant. If the family continues to atomize, to break apart, it stands to reason that religious belief will continue to decline.
The statistics with which I opened this post — the fact that most young adult Americans see marriage and family as incidental to adulthood — is a sign. It’s a big sign. A lot of Christians want to dismiss The Benedict Option as alarmism. Sorry, but these folks are Zimmerman’s Pollyannas. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then people had better speak up, and speak up with enough volume to overcome the din of popular culture. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then Christians had better prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for a future that Zimmerman, drawing on the post-imperial Roman example, says will be tumultuous and unpleasant:
Over a period of two centuries, this confused picture rectified itself; but Western society was not very orderly or peaceful for several centuries more.
Zimmerman — again, not a religious believer — said that historically, the morals and influence of the Christian church in the West restored society after its Roman collapse. Today, that influence is the only thing that gives us long-term hope for the future. But if the Church is going to be around in that far-off time to give hope to refugees floating atop the waves of liquid modernity, we Christians have to act now to prepare for the Dark Age upon us.
UPDATE: Corporate America, popular culture: