Asked to name the most pressing problem confronting the American family, many conservatives would say its breakdown since the advent of the welfare state. That’s a valid answer, but a larger problem is looming today: a lack of family formation. Fewer Americans are getting married and having children.
Birth rates began to plummet with the generational shift from Gen X (born 1965-1979) to Millennials (born 1980-1994), according to professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge’s Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future. Fertility had been rising prior to the Great Recession of 2008, a recent Pew report notes, but it fell off sharply after that, and has yet to recover.
In the recent documentary, “Birthgap,” data scientist Stephen J. Shaw notes that the primary driver behind falling birthrates is not that mothers are having fewer children, but that the number of women who have no children has risen sharply. Most of these women, about 80%, wanted children but either never found a partner or did not do so in time to have children. They were caught unawares, had been poorly educated about female fertility, and thought they had more time.
Part of this outlook towards biology could have to do with the general perception that, through technology, modern society has conquered nature. The contemporary world is a customizable one, and the individual expects his every preference and desire—from his Uber Eats orders to his online dating options—to be met, and promptly. It is difficult to confront the reality that even science is limited by nature, as was exemplified by some of the reactions during the pandemic.
Young singles are putting other things before dating. It’s a common belief these days that both spouses should be established and have experienced the world before settling down to the business of marriage. Marriage is viewed as a “capstone” rather than the “cornerstone” of life, as Sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin has explained.
Many young people also now come from broken homes and divorced parents likely do not encourage their children to prioritize marriage, to make it the cornerstone of life. Only 62% of Millennials were raised by both parents, compared to 71% of Gen Xers, 85% of Boomers, and 87% of Silents. The broken families of one generation can lead to a lack of family formation in another.
In “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” University of California, Berkley, professor Judith S. Wallerstein and San Francisco State University professor Julia M. Lewis suggest that the impact divorce has on children extends into adulthood, affecting relationships and marriages:
The central finding of this study is that parental divorce impacts detrimentally the capacity to love and be loved within a lasting, committed relationship…In addition to overcoming their fear of failure, they have a great deal to learn about the give and take of living with another person, about how to deal with differences, and about how to resolve conflicts.
Children of divorce can be pessimistic about marriage and dismissive of its importance for human happiness. More fundamentally, they are missing a mapped example of a healthy relationship, of what to look for in a spouse and how to communicate well.
Individuals are putting off marriage and children, not only because of shifts in attitudes towards marriage, but because many who want to get married are struggling to find partners. Contributing to this are the effects of what has come to be known as the “boy crisis.” Like falling birth rates, the boy crisis is not just an American phenomenon, but is manifesting itself in many developed countries around the world.
More women are going to college than men, but women still would like partners as educated or more educated than them; for example, women are 91% more likely to “swipe right” on Tinder when a man has a master’s versus a bachelor’s degree. According to Twenge, Millennials are making more money than previous generations, but “Every single penny of the rise in younger adults’ incomes is due to women’s incomes.”
This has been some time in the making. In ”The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men,” Christina Hoff Sommers drew attention to the academic gaps between girls and boys and how such gaps would hinder boys’ future earnings in a knowledge economy. Her book was published over 20 years ago. The boys of 2000 are the men of today.
The boy crisis, as devastatingly detailed in political scientist Warren Farrell’s and counselor John Gray’s “The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It,” can be primarily traced to the absence of fathers, with 40% of children now born out of wedlock. Not only have boys been lagging academically, their lifespans and IQs are decreasing, and young men are turning to drugs, alcohol, and suicide in despair.
The boy crisis, primarily precipitated by the absence of fathers, and a lack of family formation, constitutes a vicious cycle. The effects of dad-deprivation are more severe for boys than for girls, and, according to Farrell and Gray, “This is true not only of boys’ economic future, but also of boys’ emotional intelligence and marital potential—all of which are inextricably connected.” Women desire mature spouses and tend to be hypergamous; they marry those who are equal or above them in terms of education or socioeconomic status. When men are doing poorly, women are without suitable life partners.
Under such circumstances, a hook-up culture, made more possible by the invention of the birth control pill (and, in the case of Millennials and Zoomers, online dating) and encouraged by the tenets of the Sexual Revolution, tends to prevail. This vicious cycle leads men and women to put off marriage. And when women are educated and economically independent, many make the choice of pursuing other opportunities rather than settling with a partner with whom they lack confidence.
Adaptive thinking is called for when it comes to strengthening American families (and indeed, families around the world). Responding to declining birth rates will not simply, nor perhaps primarily, be a matter of adjusting policies that obviously pertain to the family, like parental leave, but addressing phenomena like the boy crisis.
Family policies cater to families that have already been formed, but a major driver of falling birth rates is that people are not getting married in the first place. If we hope to save the American family, we have to recognize this shift—and respond accordingly.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Wire