Wednesday, July 12, 2006

State of our Unions

Every Summer for the past few years, I've looked forward to the latest State of Our Unions report produced by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead with the National Marriage Project. Their research is solid, objective and very readable. Over the past few years, they have produced something of a family report card on topics such as marriage, divorce, cohabitation, parenting, etc. In addition, they have offered essays examining trends such as the quest for soul mates, reasons why men won't commit and a description of men who are "the marrying kind." This year, their essay is called "Life Without Children."

It's a troubling picture of where family fits into our current (and future) culture. Below, I've excerpted a large portion of the conclusion of this essay. This portion summarizes compellingly one of the driving issues for this blog.

We are in the midst of a profound change in American life. Demographically, socially and culturally, the nation is shifting from a society of child-rearing families to a society of child-free adults. The percentage of households with children has declined from half of all households in 1960 to less than one-third today—the lowest percentage in the nation’s history. Indeed, if the twentieth century aspired to become the “century of the child,” the twenty-first may well become the century of the child-free.

The repercussions of this change are apparent in nearly every domain of American life.

The physical landscape of communities is changing to fit the lifestyle of the non-child-rearing population. Private housing developers are building condos with health clubs, golf courses, and other adult-only amenities for the growing population of affluent singles, childless couples, and empty nesters. Big cities and small college towns, with a cosmopolitan mix of educational and recreational attractions, are becoming magnets for the childless young and empty-nest old while the child-rearing population is migrating to the exurbs in search of affordable housing, safe streets, and decent schools.

Likewise, the popular culture is increasingly oriented to fulfilling the X-rated fantasies and desires of adults. The “adult entertainment industry,” which includes gambling, pornography and sex, is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative sectors of the consumer economy. Not only has this multibillion dollar industry gained respectability and power in the corridors of Washington, it has used its power to defeat every effort to restrict the access of underage children to its most misogynistic and hyperviolent products.

More generally and pervasively, the expressive values of the adult-only world are at odds with the values of the child-rearing world. Indeed, child-rearing values—sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity—seem stale and musty by comparison. Nor does the bone-wearying and time-consuming work of the child-rearing years comport with a culture of fun and freedom. Indeed, what it takes to raise children is almost the opposite of what popularly defines a satisfying adult life.

The cultural devaluation of child rearing is especially harmful in the American context. In other advanced western societies, parents’ contributions are recognized and compensated with tangible work and family benefits. In American society, the form of compensation has been mainly cultural. Parents have been rewarded (many would argue inadequately) for the unpaid work of caring for children with respect, support and recognition from the larger society. Now this cultural compensation is disappearing. Indeed, in recent years, the entire child-rearing enterprise has been subject to a ruthless debunking. Most notably, the choice of motherhood is now contested terrain, with some critics arguing that the tasks of mothering are unworthy of educated women’s time and talents. Along with the critique of parenthood, a small but aggressively vocal “childfree” movement is organizing to represent the interests of nonparents.

It is hard enough to rear children in a society that is organized to support that essential social task. Consider how much more difficult it becomes when a society is indifferent at best, and hostile, at worst, to those who are caring for the next generation.

Read the entire report at


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