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.

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  • gimpi1

    As an outsider to your faith, I see a couple of things Elder Oaks missed:

    First of all, a young woman who wants to marry, have kids and stay home with them is being a bit overly optimistic and perhaps foolish not to have a solid “back-up plan” in case her marriage doesn’t work out. Like it or not, marriages break up. They always have. Even if she has a good education, if her skills aren’t up to date, (and she has been at home for several years, they may not be) and she has no recent job-history, it will be very hard for her to find any decent-paying work. Without a generous safety-net to allow her some grace, she must be ready to hit the ground running in the event her marriage ends, either through divorce or tragedy. That means staying in the work-force. Staying in the work-force often means having fewer children, or deciding not to have any. Most social-conservatives that I know don’t favor that substantial safety-net. Just such fears affect many young women of different faiths. I know several.

    Secondly, while some cultures may be looking at a demographic loss, the human race as a whole certainly is not. We have almost 7,000,000 people on the planet. That population is contributing to famines, emergent epidemics, wars, environmental damage, and many more problems. I am much more worried about the suffering of children born in a place with little clean water, less food and civil war brewing than I am about radical changes in the culture of, for example, France or Sweden. If you are thinking globally rather than regionally, the whole “demographic collapse” looks a bit silly. Many young men and women know this. It can, and should, affect their decision-making.

    Hope this is of interest.

  • stanz2reason

    I think it important to emphasize the financial realities of the 21st century world, particularly with regards to education, and how that effects the structure of a family. With more people going to college, their adult lives barely start before they’re 22 (or higher for people coming from grad schools). Once schooling is complete, people are looking to get their monies worth from their schooling and are spending more time establishing themselves in their careers prior to starting a family. After you have a family, the cycle of getting yourself through school circles back to then having to pay for schooling for your child. My wife and I are fairly well off as both of us work (we need to) and we live sensibly, yet we will be laughably short of paying for 4 years of schooling for our daughter at anything but a state school if and when we have other children (for the record, not knocking on state schools as both my wife and I went to one and are fond of our alma mater). While it might be somewhat crude, much of the social trends you’ve mentioned can be understood by considering a child an economic expense. What people in their 30′s (myself included) have started to realize as well is that we will probably not see, in general, the return on investment on things like our homes that our parents saw in the lifetimes, making us tighten even further on expenses including future children.

    I also agree with the sentiment of the poster below. I think in a larger sense, an increasing global population with decreasing resources is potentially more of a problem then stagnant birth rates, which in a sense you could actually make an argument for being the ideal, rather than perpetual growth or significant decline. I hear your concerns that ideological conflicts can arise due to an influx of a growing group displacing a stagnant or declining group, but I also don’t think ‘we must out-breed them’ is a reasonable solution, though that seems to be the idea among particularly religious populations.

    “…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.”

    This is an excellent point. Can’t stress that enough. It might do you some good if you spent sometime coming up with an honest answer for the portion I bolded.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The human male, as have been most males in the animal kingdom, have always been seen as expendable, other than for protection and procreation. We can dress wars up in any ways we want, but they have actually been feeding our young men into the maw of survival of the fittest. We get rid of excess testosterone in the animal kingdom.

    The smartest and most ancestrally connected were able to create niches of survival for those that had skills not available to the average evolved animal. The problem is that we still hold onto the animal ethos of the meaning and importance of procreation of our own animal groupings, at the expense of incorporation of other skill sets.

    Until we stop believing that individual salvation is possible without the incorporation of all the energy that is implanted in us by all who came before us, we will not understand or appreciate that what we manifest in out physical presence will metamorphose into new physical manifestations throughout eternity.


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