In the April 2018 issue of Atlantic magazine, Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik reviewed Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. As Gopnik notes, Pinker provides reams of data showing that for all sorts of measures of human progress, including “more education, peace, and prosperity, or fewer infectious diseases, murders, and even deaths by lightning,” the results suggest remarkable progress. Around the world, and over the course of human history, “on almost every measure, things have gotten better and are still getting better.”
Gopnik thinks Pinker has missed something important. Progress, she believes, has come at the expense of small-town values such as wanting to stay in your hometown where you can marry, have kids, tend to your parents and grandparents, and be near your friends and family. Those are the values that would compel you “to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent.”
She criticizes Pinker for omitting what she calls:
“one notably pessimistic set of graphs: those that chart the signs that local relationships are threatened – even the most basic relationships between partners and between parents and children.”
What are those pessimistic societal trends that threaten “the most basic relationships between partners and between parents and children”? Here’s the next sentence:
“Since 1960, the marriage rate in the U.S. has declined substantially, particularly for lower-income and less-educated people, and the proportion of single-parent families among American households has risen.”
(There are a few sentences after that about the high rate of child poverty and the low levels of paid parental leave and subsidized child care.)
The first thing to notice is that to this Berkeley professor and Wall-Street Journal columnist, writing in the prestigious Atlantic magazine, the growing number of people who are single, including the increasing number of single people who are parents, is a bad thing. These are “pessimistic” trends.
I think the decline of marriage and the rise of single parenting are indications that people have more opportunities than they ever have had before of living the life that works for them. We do not all have to follow the same script anymore of marrying, having children, staying married, and having grandchildren.
I like how Philip Cohen described the rise of single motherhood in his new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else that Makes Families Great and Terrible:
“Single mothers are the visible expression of the historical trend toward both gender equality and more diverse family structures, which have had the effect of decentering the married, man-woman, breadwinner-homemaker nuclear family.”
Even if you disagree with that perspective, do you see what is wrong with Alison Gopnik’s claim that the decline of marriage and the rise of single parenting represent threats to “even the most basic relationships between partners and between parents and children”?
Is she saying that partners cannot have good relationships unless they are married? Even more troubling, does she think that parents cannot have strong and profoundly loving relationships with their children if they are single?
How about that commitment to caring for “your profoundly disabled child”? Does she really think that single parents are less devoted to those children than are married parents?
What about your willingness “to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your…fragile, dying grandparent”? Does she really think that grown children who are single are less likely to provide such care than offspring who are married? Research on caring for aging parents is unequivocal: adult children who are single are more likely to do so than those who are married. That’s true whether they are Black or White, sons or daughters.
Finally, let’s consider the value Gopnik praises of staying connected with your friends and relatives. Here again, the data are plentiful, and they are clear: single people do more to stay in touch with, and exchange help with, their friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents than married people do. As couples move in together or get married, they tend to marginalize the other people in their life. They do that even if they don’t have kids.
Recently, a misleading singles-bashing story, complete with hyperbolic headline and a picture of a pitiful single person, was resurrected on social media. It first appeared in the New York Post about seven months ago. That was discouraging, but not entirely surprising: The paper is a tabloid. The casual singlism practiced by serious scholars, without apology or even awareness, is another thing entirely. It is demoralizing and inexcusable.