Singling Out the Problem

New data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in Bloomberg last week shows that singles now make up the majority of adults in the U.S. population. About 125 million Americans, or 50.2 percent of those over the age of 16, are single, up from 37.4 percent in 1976.

It’s a trend entirely unique in recent American history, and one unprecedented in peacetime. And while divorced, separated, and widowed singles have contributed to the increase, the lion’s share of singles are unmarried young people, many of whom will never marry.

Marriage itself is on the decline. According to U.S. Census data, households consisting of married couples are becoming rarer and smaller. The percentage of households with married couples has plummeted by 20 percent in the last 40 years, and a record number of adults (especially men) spend most of their days living alone.

These statistics coincide with two other worrying trends. For several years now, the U.S. has seen a record number of children born out of wedlock. But births as such are not soaring. In fact, they’re near an all-time low, having just dipped below replacement rate (the average number of children every woman must have in order to compensate for deaths in a population). That means that without immigration, the population of the United States would currently be declining.

These demographic shakeups are far from benign. In countries like Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Singapore, where birth rates are significantly lower than in the United States, a myriad of social ills have begun to emerge. A high ratio of elderly retirees to young workers results in economic hardship for those beginning their careers and pressure on the elderly to — as Japan’s finance minister put it — “hurry up and die.”

Cohabitation, single parenting, and shuttling children between separated parents all carry well-established negative side-effects. Cohabitating couples have weaker bonds and are significantly more likely to split, even with children. They’re also more likely to divorce should they subsequently marry. Children of single or divorced parents suffer from consistently higher rates of abuse, depression, and illegal drug use, and earn lower grades on average than their peers.

And parents who place children low on their list of priorities, even if they’re married, incur their own set of risks, including prenatal complications and genetic diseases like autism and Down syndrome.

“We are in the midst of a ‘natural experiment,’” says John Stonestreet, citing Judith Shulevitz of The New Republic, “that will measure the impact of ‘aging reproductive systems and avid consumption of fertility treatments’ on family life.”

A still larger social experiment is underway in declining birth rates.

“The retreat from child rearing,” wrote Rod Dreher in a lightning rod 2012 New York Times piece, “is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”

Ultimately, what lies at the root of this decadence and the social science that exposes it is our insistence on separating sex from family. The uptick in lifelong singleness is just another symptom of this culture’s exchange of God’s social design for an artificial one (Genesis 1:28 and 9:7, Micah 2:15).

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with individuals remaining single. Scripture extols the virtues of lifelong chastity for Christ (1 Corinthians 7). But there is something wrong with a majority of adults remaining single. And it manifests in an aging, solitary, childless, and broken society.

Further reading: