David Brooks, Nuclear Family Scold, Cries Uncle

Is it bad to keep your options open?

Posted Nov 20, 2012

Singlism, the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single, is something I have been battling for quite some time. Other authors, experts, activists, and cutting-edge thinkers are also climbing onboard as the movement grows. After all, who wants to argue for discrimination?

David Brooks, it turns out. Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, says explicitly that “our laws and attitudes should be biased.”

He made his argument in a recent essay titled “The age of possibility.” Citing a report by Joel Kotkin and others on “The rise of post-familialism,” Brooks notes trends in the U.S., Scandinavia, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere toward (1) more people living solo; (2) fewer people marrying; (3) women having fewer children or none at all; and (4) less dogmatism about the centrality of children to a successful marriage.

In short, Brooks, says:

“The world is moving in the same basic direction, from societies oriented around the two-parent family to cafeteria societies with many options.”

Those of us who are single and who have chosen not to have children may applaud the newfound freedoms to live the lives that we find most meaningful. David Brooks disagrees. He is not impressed. (Wouldn’t I love an image of David Brooks doing the McKayla Maroney “not impressed” face!)

“People are not better off when they are given maximal personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice – commitments to family, God, craft, and country.”

Now here comes the rationale for writing discrimination against singles and adults with no children into our laws:

“The surest way to people bind themselves is through family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like.”

It is interesting that Brooks uses the language of bondage in describing links to marriage and family, but I won’t linger on that one. The “induce” word is eyebrow-raising, too: In Brooks’ view, people need to be arm-twisted into caring about others or their communities or their nation or “their kind” (another somewhat disturbing phrase), and families, to him, are the best arm-twisters of them all. Not any kind of family, of course – just the two-parent version.

I wouldn’t so much mind Brooks’ jaundiced view of human nature if his proclamations were based on data. There have been several research projects, based on representative national samples, assessing the extent to which people of different marital statuses provide help to other people and maintain connections with them. After reviewing the results of that research, I conclude:

“In fact, in some ways, singles reliably do more than their share. When people who have always been single are compared to the previously married and the currently married in the extent to which they exchange social and instrumental support, provide care, and stay in touch with people such as parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors, it is the currently married people who are nearly always at the bottom of the list. That's why the contemporary institution is sometimes called ‘greedy marriage.’ In the United States, many married couples and nuclear families turn inward, expecting undivided commitment to one another.”

As I argue in Singled Out, couples and nuclear family members sometimes do “care about others” (as Brooks wants them to) a great deal, but sometimes the focus of their caring is overwhelmingly on the people in their own marriage and their own nuclear family. Maybe it is single people who are more inclined to take the big view of the nation’s or the world’s children – and adults.

I promised in the title of this piece that David Brooks would cry uncle. Here’s what that sounds like:

“But the two-parent family is obviously not the only way people bind themselves. We are inevitably entering a world in which more people search for different ways to attach. Before jumping to the conclusion that the world is going to hell, it’s probably a good idea to investigate these emerging commitment devices.”

So maybe we have David Brooks’ blessing to be committed to our close friends and other important people in our lives who are not our children or legal sex partners. Maybe we also get to be committed to passions such as the pursuit of social justice. (Not that I think we need his nod.)

You didn’t think Brooks was going to end there, did you, with that wisp of open-mindedness? Here’s his actual parting paragraph:

“The problem is not necessarily a changing family structure. It’s people who go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open.”

At a time when few jobs are totally secure, and when even the secure jobs sometimes require retraining, it seems odd to cast attempts to keep your options open as a bad thing. At a time of unprecedented choices (Brooks’s “age of possibility”), when we can try new things and follow fresh interests instead of remaining the same stagnant person for our entire adult lives, it seems misguided to decry those who avail themselves of opportunities to learn and grow.

Don’t be so afraid, David Brooks. It’s okay. When more people can pursue the lives they find most meaningful and most constructive, we will all be better off.

Postscript: I like to read original sources, so I tracked down the full report that Brooks is discussing, “The rise of post-familialism: Humanity’s future?” I went straight to the section on singles, and was pleasantly surprised, at first, to find that Singled Out was cited there, and quoted several times throughout the report. The authors, though, got “singlism” wrong. They seem to think the term means living single rather than the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against singles. I was surprised at such sloppiness from someone such as Kotkin who has a decent publication record. I next looked to see what the report had to say about Eric Klinenberg, who has also taken an open-minded approach to the growing number of people living solo. In the Notes section, the authors got his name wrong, calling him “Steven” in Note 3. I’ll read the entire report at some point and maybe blog about it, but I won’t know, without checking every claim, whether the authors messed up their representations of other work in addition to my own.

[Notes: (1) Thanks to Alan, Elliott Lewis, and several others who send me links to the David Brooks piece. (2) To everyone who sends me possible topics for blog posts, please let me know if it is okay to thank you by name and if so, what name I should use. (3) Other recent blog posts are listed below.]

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