From Nicholas Elberstadt:
‘They’re getting divorced, and they’ll do anything NOT to get custody of the kids.” So reads the promotional poster, in French, for a new movie, “Papa ou Maman” (“Daddy or Mommy”), plastered all over Paris during my recent visit there. The movie sounds like quintessential French comedy, but its plot touches on a deep and serious reality—and one not particular to France.
All around the world today, pre-existing family patterns are being upended by a revolutionary new force: the seemingly unstoppable quest for convenience by adults demanding ever-greater autonomy. We can think of this as another triumph of consumer sovereignty, which has at last brought rational choice and elective affinities into a bastion heretofore governed by traditions and duties—many of them onerous. Thanks to this revolution, it is perhaps easier than ever before to free oneself from the burdens that would otherwise be imposed by spouses, children, relatives or significant others with whom one shares a hearth.
Yet in infancy and childhood and then again much later, in feebleness or senescence, people need more from others. Whatever else we may be, we are all manifestly inconvenient at the start and end of life. Thus the recasting of the family puts it on a collision course with the inescapable inconvenience of the human condition itself—portending outcomes and risks we have scarcely begun to consider.
To evaluate the world-wide flight from the family, we can start in the U.S. Remarkably enough, we do not actually know the probabilities of getting married and staying married in America today, because the government doesn’t collect the information needed to make an estimate. We do know that both marriage and in situ parenting are increasingly regarded as optional for child-rearing.
As of 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 40% of babies in the U.S. were born outside marriage, and for 2014 the Census Bureau estimated that 27% of all children (and 22% of “White” children) lived in a fatherless home. But the opt-out from the old family norm is even more advanced than these figures suggest. A 2011 study by two Census researchers reckoned that just 59% of all American children (and 65% of “Anglo” or non-Hispanic white children) lived with married and biological parents as of 2009. Unless there is a change in this “revealed preference” against married unions that include children, within the foreseeable future American children who reside with their married birthparents will be in the minority.
Now consider Europe, where the revolution in the family has gained still more ground. European demographers even have an elegant name for the phenomenon: They call it the Second Demographic Transition (the First being the shift from high birth rates and death rates to low ones that began in Europe in the early industrial era and by now encompasses almost every society). In the schema of the Second Demographic Transition, long, stable marriages are out, and divorce or separation are in, along with serial cohabitation and increasingly contingent liaisons. Not surprisingly, this new environment of perennially conditional, no-fault unions was also seen as ushering in an era of more or less permanent sub-replacement fertility.
According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, the probability of marriage before age 50 has been plummeting for European women and men, while the chance of divorce for those who do marry has been soaring. In Belgium—the birth-land of the scholars who initially detected this Second Transition—the likelihood of a first marriage for a woman of reproductive age is now down to 40%, and the likelihood of divorce is over 50%. This means that in Belgium the odds of getting married and staying married are under one in five. A number of other European countries have similar or even lower odds.
Europe has also seen a surge in “child-free” adults—voluntary childlessness. The proportion of childless 40-something women is one in five for Sweden and Switzerland, and one in four for Italy. In Berlin and in the German city-state of Hamburg, it’s nearly one in three, and rising swiftly. Europe’s most rapidly growing family type is the one-person household: the home not only child-free, but partner- and relative-free as well. In Western Europe, nearly one home in three (32%) is already a one-person unit, while in autonomy-prizing Denmark the number exceeds 45%. The rise of the one-person home coincides with population aging. But it is not primarily driven by the graying of European society, at least thus far: Over twice as many Danes under 65 are living alone as those over 65.