An increasing number of births happen outside of marriage, signaling cultural and economic shifts that are here to stay, according to a new report from the United Nations.
Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union, where 60 percent of births occur outside of marriage.
The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”
Regardless of marital status, more couples are choosing not to have kids at all. The U.S. fertility rate hit a historic 30-year low last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hermann said the rise in births outside of wedlock has actually mitigated the decline in fertility, which “would be much steeper if women weren’t having children outside marriage.”
“The trend will continue, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We can’t go back to ’50s.”
If you haven’t read it yet, Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman’s 1947 classic Family And Civilization (available on Kindle for only $9.99) will knock you off your chair. In brief, Zimmerman examines the role family structure played in Greco-Roman civilization, as well as the medieval period, up until today.
He shows that in ancient Greece and Rome, a collapse of “familism” — a worldview that placed the family at the core of society’s self-understanding — preceded a more general civilizational collapse. Zimmerman explains how and why this works. Signs of the ongoing and future collapse include declining fertility rates, abandonment of marital norms, widespread divorce, and the normalization of aberrant forms of sexuality. For contemporary readers, one striking aspect of the book is that Zimmerman published it in 1947, and saw all these things rising in the West in his day — and indeed, had been rising for centuries. Any conservative today who thinks this all began in the 1960s should read Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s comprehensive analysis indicates that when these contributing factors start to manifest in societies, they are very hard to arrest. Radical individualism is the universal solvent. In 2016, I wrote about Zimmerman’s book in this space, and said, in part:
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.
What prompted that 2016 citation of Zimmerman was a new (at the time) US Census Bureau report showing that only 45 percent of Americans 18 to 34 believed that getting married and having children were an essential part of being an adult.
A thousand things go into catechizing a generation to believe that. But once a civilization comes to believe that the fundamental thing necessary to its survival — producing the next generations — are in fact unnecessary, it is hard to see how that civilization endures.
Nobody marries and has kids because it makes rational sense. If you don’t do it out of religious conviction, you do it because your culture has taught you that marriage and family are primary goods — that is, goods that don’t need to be justified, because they are good in and of themselves. Not everybody is called to marry and/or have children, of course, but in a healthy society, it is taken as the normal thing to do, without anybody having to think about it.
We are no longer that kind of society. You’ve heard this from me a million times, so I won’t repeat that all here. I want to speak, however, to Christians, many of whom have an unwarranted belief that our kind will somehow escape this cultural sickness unto death.
In fact, the church is not so different from the rest. Five years ago, I was shocked to hear a professor at a conservative Evangelical college say that he doubts that most of his students will be capable of forming and sustaining families of their own. Why? Because most of them have never seen what a normal family is.
A few years back, Mary Eberstadt wrote a book arguing that we have the causation wrong on the connection between loss of faith and loss of family. The received opinion is that when people lose faith, they lose the family ideals associated with it. That is no doubt true. But what (Eberstadt asks) if it’s also that case that the loss of family ideals lead to the loss of faith? She builds a case that the decline of the family — which is the most effective transmitter of religious belief across generations — has also led to a decline of religious belief. Given sociological research showing that the greatest predictor of whether or not a young person will grow up to embrace the faith espoused by his parents is whether or not the parents actually practiced the faith (especially the father!), this thesis makes a lot of sense.
In the latest issue of his e-mail newsletter The Masculinist (archives here), Aaron Renn discusses in detail the decline of the household. He talks about the economic and technological changes that led to this. Excerpts:
It’s not just that there were fewer children overall and more children in daycare, but the upbringing of children was increasingly overseen if not directly implemented by the marketplace and the state. Universal Pre-K is a recent example of this. My neighborhood has places offering pre-pre-K and there are tons of classes for babies and toddlers. There’s a growing program in NYC and other global cities called “Chess at 3.” Parents today rely on classes and professionals rather than themselves to entertain and train kids, even for extremely young children. They increasingly provide just partial financing and transportation to their kids’ organized activities.
The household is thus reduced in function even further, and with an egalitarian gender system increasingly it is hard to distinguish a marriage from roommates or friends with benefits, etc. Unsurprisingly, we see the rise of post-familialism. It’s estimated that a quarter of Millennials will never marry. Many others will never have children. The low birth rate trend is far more advanced in Europe and high income Asia than in the US – some researchers estimate up to a third of women in some East Asian countries will never have kids – but most advanced countries have a birth rate far below replacement. They are entirely dependent on immigration for demographic growth. In effect, the developed world offshored not just production but also reproduction.
One final means by which growth has been maintained is through taking on of huge quantities of debt at all levels, from individual credit cards and student loans to federal government bonds ($21.5 trillion of them at present and growing by the day).
Finally, I’ll point out the direct change in production. We’ve shifted primarily from the production of goods to the provision of services, thus going post-industrial. This helped facilitate the entry of women into the workforce by rebalancing occupations away from male dominated physically rigorous blue-collar occupations. And no longer do we have large vertically integrated companies doing everything soup to nuts. Instead we have globally networked production. Teams of people, factories, software systems, etc. collaborate across firm and national boundaries on a global basis to produce goods and services. This is increasingly facilitated by software, which is creating a nascent shift in the authority structure from bureaucratic to what I call “impersonal.” The algorithm is an example of this. Uber drivers don’t have a boss as we understand it. They are directed by algorithms. As AI increasingly mediates our interactions, expect much more of this.
Not every change in our society is due to the need to keep up growth rates. And again, my story is somewhat a speculation on the Why question. But clearly we see radical changes in our household structures, sex roles, the economy, debt levels, immigration rates, female labor force participation, child bearing and rearing, etc. These are all pretty much indisputable points. This is the backdrop against which the neoliberalization of sex and relationships that I mentioned in Masc #21 took place. That neoliberalization is fundamentally an artifact of the transition to post-industrial society.
[T]he entire Bible was written against the backdrop of pre-industrial society. But we live in industrial and post-industrial society. Here’s a question to ponder as a thought experiment.
How many Christian pastors, theologians, writers, etc. can you name who promote ideas about the sexes, marriage, and family that would be strongly rejected by (or even be offensive to) both industrial and post-industrial societies? Or to put it another way, do you know any pastors, etc. advocating any distinctly pre-industrial idea about the sexes, marriage, or family?
I can name maybe one or two. I’m guessing you can’t name many either, if any. I don’t think it proves anything, but it’s an indicator that we might possibly be reading modern cultures into scripture. We are so completely alienated from pre-industrial culture today we can’t even really relate to it. It’s too bizarre for us to take seriously even though it’s the culture of the New Testament church. We preach about the type of community the church is suppose to represent and bemoan that we don’t seem to have it today, but never seem to put 2 and 2 together to understand that the New Testament church was created in an era of thick community while we live in one that is not only typified by thin community, but which is also fundamentally hostile to any forms of thick community. We haven’t grappled with what it means to try to build the kind of church called for in the Bible in today’s world, or even considered whether or not it’s really possible without some sort of complete withdraw à la the Amish.
A second challenge is that in industrial and post-industrial society, marriage and family is incredibly structurally weakened. Today the household is basically about companionship and consumption – and we’re going to consume whether we are married or not. This puts enormous pressure on the companionate bond between husband and wife to sustain the marriage. Their emotional bond becomes the core of the family. But all human relationships have rough patches over the long term. This means every marriage will face repeated moment of crisis during those times. No wonder there are so many divorces. Being emotionally on the outs with your spouse poisons the only real thing the marriage was providing in the first place. By contrast, in the pre-industrial era there was no food, no clothing, no one to take care of you when you were sick, no one to care for you when you were old, etc. if you were not part of a household. That’s why the Bible shows so much concern for those like the widow and the orphan marooned outside the household system. Today, your life outcomes are still much better if you are married, but people are far less dependent on the household to sustain their lives than in previous times.
I wish I could give you a link to read the whole thing, but the new issues come only as an e-mail newsletter — but it’s free to anyone who signs up here. It’s really worth it.
We hear a lot these days about how churches cater only to families, and leave single Christians on the margins. Based on personal experience, that’s a fair criticism. That said, churches ought to be focusing on family formation and sustenance, because that cannot be separated from the passing on of the faith. What needs to happen is the more effective integration of the unmarried into the life of the church and its families. But a church that does not put familism near the core of its mission is a church that is going to die, especially in a post-familial — indeed anti-familial — culture. And Christian families who, whatever narrative they formally embrace, live no different from the emerging post-familial mainstream, are setting their children up for a collapse of their own families under disintegrative pressure from the common culture — and perhaps even apostasy.
Finally, there has been talk from Pope Francis and his theological allies about how the Catholic Church needs to change to account for new forms of family. The Vatican’s preparatory document for the ongoing Youth Synod reads:
As in the days of Samuel (cf. 1 Sam 3:1-21) and Jeremiah (cf. Jer 1:4-10), young people know how to discern the signs of our times, indicated by the Spirit. Listening to their aspirations, the Church can glimpse the world which lies ahead and the paths the Church is called to follow.
That’s extremely worrying. Most young people today — at least in the West — have been formed by a powerful capitalistic and hedonistic culture that exalts individual freedom and personal choice, and that sees the authority of Scripture, of the church, of tradition, of family, and of anything outside the Self as either irrelevant or an impediment to liberty and self-realization. This kind of language telegraphs an intention by many in the Church’s leadership to surrender to the forces of disintegration by blessing them.
Several times here in the past few days, I’ve mentioned a German Catholic I met in Rome recently, who said that he expects the institutional church in his homeland to collapse in his lifetime. He believes that the faith will survive only in local communities of Catholic families who have lots of kids, who raise them strongly in the faith, and who work hard to make sure that they marry those who were raised in similar faith-filled families.
The thing is, these will have to be families whose children have been formed as intentionally countercultural. From The Benedict Option:
Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, in her classic book The Nurture Assumption, says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual—internalized, if you will—and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality.”3
Harris points to the example of immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first-generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture. “The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigrant parents adopt the culture of their peers.”
A reader of my blog said she sees the same sort of thing watching her daughter navigate from junior high to high school. “There’s nothing like having your twelve-year-old come home from school and start ticking off which of her classmates are bi,” the reader said. “I told my daughter it was statistically impossible for there to be that many bisexual students in her class, and that for most girls—and they were all girls—seventh grade was entirely too early to make pronouncements on their sexuality. In return, I got a lot of babble about gender being fluid and nonbinary.”
The reader called a friend with a daughter in the same class and asked her what was going on. “‘Where have you been?” she laughed. “‘At least a third of these girls are calling themselves bi.’”
Few parents have the presence of mind and strength of character to do what’s necessary to protect their children from forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture. For one thing, the power of media to set the terms of what’s considered normal is immense, and it affects adults as well as children. For another, parents are just as susceptible to peer pressure as their children are.
“People rear their children the way their friends and neighbors are doing it, not the way their parents did it,” says psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, “and this is true not only in media-ridden societies like our own.” [Emphasis mine — RD]
I am reminded of this advice from the pseudonymous “Professor Kingsfield,” back in 2015:
“We need to study more the experience of Orthodox Jews and Amish,” he said. “None of us are going to be living within an eruv or practicing shunning. What we should focus on is endogamy.”
Endogamy means marriage only within a certain clan or in-group.
“Intermarriage is death,” Kingsfield said. “Not something like Catholic-Orthodox, but Christian-Jew, or high church-low church. I just don’t think Christians are focused on that, but the Orthodox Jews get it. They know how much this matters in creating a culture in which transmitting the faith happens. For us Christians, this is going to mean matchmaking and youth camps and other things like that. It probably means embracing a higher fertility rate, and celebrating bigger families.”
The decisions we make today will make an enormous difference for the future — if the faith is to have a future at all.
UPDATE: Father Peter Funk says in the comments:
Two thoughts: there’s a circularity in your reasoning here. You say that there’s no rational reason for getting married and having a family, and that it must therefore be inculcated by religion and culture. But then you quote Eberstadt saying that family is anterior to religious conviction.
Second, if you really think that marrying and having a family are not actions that can be rationally defended, you are giving in to nominalism. Marriage in some form or other, is inherently rational, especially for women who want children. It’s puzzling that you seem to claim, in response to Jackie’s comment above, that for something to be Good, this means it can’t be argued for.
Let me apologize for being confusing, and clarify: I certainly believe that you can make a rational argument for marriage and family, because they *are* rational. My claim is not philosophical, but pragmatic: in a society like ours, where maximizing individual autonomy is seen to be the greatest good, it is hard to argue people who are averse to marriage and family into yoking themselves to a spouse, and having children, because both require a lot of self-sacrifice.
I also believe that it’s necessary to tie family formation and maintenance to religious belief and duty, not only because I believe (as a Christian) that it really is part of the duty of most of us, but also because it is what holds couples and families together when things get hard. I have a Catholic friend who is suffering greatly in his marriage, but who is carrying it as a cross because he loves God and his children more than he loves himself. If not for his religious faith, he would be gone, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But he knows what would happen to his children. I think he is a hero. This society of ours would see him as a masochist.
UPDATE.2: Reader Anonymous Mom writes:
All of you young Christian parents and would-be Christian parents who are trying to do the right thing and ensure that your kids will grow up to be the kind of adults you hope they will be, all I can say is, I wish you luck.
I’m in my mid-sixties and my husband and I have been married for forty-one years. We met while we were both working in full-time Christian ministry. We were virgins on our wedding day. We went to church every Sunday. We prayed. We read the Bible. We took our kids to Sunday school and church. We home schooled. We read to our kids all the time when they were little, and when they learned to read, we kept them supplied with good reading material. (All of them were voracious readers, probably due to the absence of television in our home.) We made sure they hung around with other Christian kids. We taught them right from wrong. I was a full-time mother and my husband supported the family on his income, which meant that he often worked very long hours. Somehow he still managed to spend a lot of time with his kids.
In short, we did everything we thought necessary to guarantee that our kids would grow up to be the kind of people that the world needs more of, as opposed to the kind the world already has way too many of.
All of our kids are church dropouts. One is married; the others are unmarried, but not celibate. One suffers from gender dysphoria and suicidal tendencies. None has any interest in Christianity. They continue to speak to me only because I refrain from expressing my views on the 99% of subjects on which we disagree. Keeping my opinions and beliefs to myself is the price I pay in order to maintain a relationship with them.
Back when I was young and naive, I thought Proverbs 22:6 was a promise. News flash: It isn’t. You can do everything right, and still have things turn out wrong.