by New Dealer
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann provides some very interesting statistics on what life is like for the average 27-year old in 2014. The most interesting statistics to me were that high school drop-outs and high-school diploma/degree holders were much more likely than people with undergrad or advanced degrees to have children. 27-year olds with Associate degrees were more likely to have a child and own a home as compared to their counterparts with more education. Meanwhile, The New York Times ran a column by Ross Douthat on why mass incarceration, right-wing economic policy/globalization, no fault divorce, the low morals of pop culture, and legal abortion have destroyed marriage especially for the poor and working class.
Jessica Grouse does a good job of showing why Douthat’s cultural arguments do not hold water and that the good old-days were probably not as good as conservative’s imagine in regards to whether people waited before marriage for sex. The purpose of my essay is to explore the contradictions between freedom in a democratic society and how it seems to cause serious stress among many people in society.
The United States is a democratic republic. We have free elections, civil rights and liberties. All or almost all major and minor political parties acknowledge this and present themselves as being the defenders of freedom and liberty and their opponents are the enemies of freedom and liberty. As far as I can tell this has been happening since the early days of the American Republic.
It seems to me that in a free society, people must be largely left to make many of their own choices for themselves as long as those choices do not hurt people physically, mentally, emotionally, or deny other’s their civil rights. This is why as a liberal I don’t think that things like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are anti-liberty. The greater good is in having a society that allows everyone to participate fully in civil and economic life no matter their age, race, religion, ethnicity, creed, lifestyle choices, gender, sexuality, gender non-conformity, etc. A society that believes the right to discriminate is more important than the right of full economic and civil participation is not a free society.
Yet at the same time, this freedom seems to cause a good deal of moral panic – especially at the fact that people are either not getting married or getting married and having kids later. A few years ago, I read the original novel for M*A*S*H and what struck me most is how young the main characters were. Hawkeye was not even 30 and already had two sons and a wife. He seemed to have started his family while simultaneously working on his medical school education. The idea of starting a family and career at the same time is daunting. I was raised to have a reasonably established career before marrying and having children. I imagine this is true for many people in their 20s and 30s with bachelor’s degrees or higher who are childless, urban, and possibly single.
Now I have a girlfriend who wants to have children in the soonish future so I am working on a plan to make this happen, if not exactly on her ideal timeline than as close to it as possible. We are also still a new couple, however, (though we knew each other as undergrads) and doing normal new couple things albeit at long-distance. However, when I was single I often wondered how social conservatives like Douthat felt I should be living my life. There was an essay on a San Francisco website The Bold Italic ran an essay that was roughly about how San Franciscans (at least well-educated and/or secular San Franciscans) are in their 20s until they reach 40 or so. At that point, they settle down, marry, and have one or two children. It seems to me that social conservatives like Douthat consider this a problem but I can’t figure out why. How should childless people in their 30s and 40s act? Why shouldn’t they use their money on cool bars and restaurants or whatever else strikes their fancy?
I do admit that I do have a slightly judgmental streak at maximum freedom though. In San Francisco, you do see a lot of guys in their 40s and maybe 50s with more salt than pepper in their hair and they still try to dress like a 17-year old skateboarder in hoodies and rock band t-shirts. Part of me does sigh at this but it would be the same part of me that sighs at a 56 year old Corporate Banker who decides to divorce his wife of 20 years and start a second family with a woman who is half his age. But I do not think that there should be any law that prohibits either, nor do I think that it is worthwhile for government to enact policies that try and curb both behaviors.
My conclusion is short and largely along the lines of Jessica Grouse: the marriage decline is probably more because of mass incarceration and the end of well-paying blue collar jobs than anything else. There are policies that can probably promote marriage among the poor and working class but these go counter to standard Republican economic ideals. You can’t have everything and eventually Republicans will need to decide whether they care more about marriage or about their preferred economic policies. People should be left to make their own decisions about when to marry or not and whether to have children or not. My guess about wy 27 year olds with Associate Degrees are more likely to have children and be home owners is that they had a different educational and career outlook their grad-school educated contemporaries. They are possibly more interested in more life and less work in the life-work balance and don’t dream of Mill Valley or Westchester or a Brooklyn Brownstone like I do. This is only a personal hypothesis though.This is the mark of a free society. I have yet to hear a good argument about why it is better to work on building a career and family at the same time over being established and secure professionally first. If someone wants to be like Candance Cameron and be domestic and write about how she “submits to her husband” that is fine but I have a hard time seeing how she made this choice on her own freewill if she grew up in a culture where that is the norm and no other options are explained. My guess is that liberals in big cities pose some kind of existential threat to social conservatives because we show other options are possible. How can you expect them to stay on the farm once they have seen Paris?