What we can’t know about social conservatism

Elder Oaks’s General Conference address last week has predictably prompted a lot of discussion, much of it circling gay marriage. I want to pay attention to a different passage from the address, one that is admittedly secondary to the primary message but that caught my attention nevertheless. Providing evidence for his point that marriage and married childrearing are losing their significance as the primary social forms for reproduction, he cited the following:

  1. •The United States now has the lowest birthrate in its history,2 and in many European Union nations and other developed countries, birthrates are below the level necessary to maintain their populations.3 This threatens the survival of cultures and even of nations.

  2. •In America, the percentage of young adults ages 18 to 29 who are married fell from 59 percent in 1960 to 20 percent by 2010.4 The median age for first marriage is now at its highest level in history: 26 for women and almost 29 for men.5

  3. •In many countries and cultures (1) the traditional family of a married mother and father and children is coming to be the exception rather than the rule, (2) the pursuit of a career instead of marriage and the bearing of children is an increasing choice of many young women, and (3) the role and perceived necessity of fathers is diminishing.

I share a lot of Elder Oaks’s evident concerns. I too worry about declining birthrates, not because I am certain that disaster will ensue, but because I’m not convinced that it won’t. Human reproductive incentives combine unpredictably with emerging technologies, and changes in birthrates can occur rapidly. Furthermore, large flows of human populations from one part of the world to another are disruptive and often violent. Yet this is an issue where the apparent good of the individual (limiting the strain of bringing more dependent children into the world) is often at odds with the good of a community (maintaining birthrates at levels that can minimize social decline). I think the potential for unintended consequences is very high.

I also worry about the rise in the age of first marriage, because it leaves a crucial decade in young adulthood, the twenties, untethered, unscripted and often up to no good. There is a lot of social and sexual chaos that can occur in the lives of people who have a little money, a lot of vices, and few responsibilities. Again, though, what is good for the individual (waiting to marry until you have found a reliable partner and are on the path to educational or career achievement) is not always good for the larger culture.

In other words, I find many thoughtful social conservative arguments persuasive, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Part of the reason is that we simply don’t understand why some of these social trends occur. No doubt it is a mix of cultural and economic factors, but the hows and why remain elusive.

Elder Oaks’s third point illustrates the difficulty in both understanding deep causation and figuring out how to help. He laments, as do I, the decline of marriage as the context for bearing and raising children. He situates that decline in two separate trends: “the choice of young women” to pursue a career in place of marrying and raising children; and the eroding of “the role and perceived necessity of fathers.”

This formulation is doubly striking. First, the decline of motherhood is framed as the active, chosen failure of individuals: young women are simply choosing to pursue career, not motherhood. Yet the decline of fatherhood is framed as a passive, general decline in a cultural ideal: it’s not that young men are simply choosing not to be fathers, but rather that society in general is demoting the role. I don’t know why Elder Oaks chose to frame the issues differently. Surely motherhood is a cultural construct just as fatherhood is, rather than simply the uncorrelated aggregate of millions of individual choices; and on the other hand, surely some young men actively, individually choose not to pursue committed relationships with potential wives and children. Because of the different framing, however, the causes and solutions to these issues look very different.

Secondly, Elder Oaks presents these as two separate social phenomena. No doubt they are distinct in important ways. But they’re also deeply connected. A young woman in her mid-twenties has a good job, but she also longs to marry and raise children. Yet there are no men in her age cohort who are willing or ready to embark with her. So she continues to work. Is this a young woman who is “choosing” to pursue career at the expense of motherhood? If you look at the sexes separately, it might appear to be so. But when you consider women’s choices in light of men’s choices, things look different. No doubt the reverse is also true, and many of the problematic trends for young men are related to women’s incentives and behaviors.

I have no neat conclusion for these observations. I suppose I simply want to point out that it is no easy task to understand what is happening and why in the infinitely complex matter of sexual and reproductive behavior. I don’t even know whether better understanding or better framing of the issues will allow us to correct the socio-sexual trends that currently contribute to economic inequality and personal suffering. But like Elder Oaks, I think it matters a lot.

A short, cranky list of highly curated links from all over
Singing in ten-thousand part harmony
Family in the Future Tense: Accommodation and Critique in Mormonism's Past and Present
All such good works to walk in: motherhood and female achievement