The reason why social conservatives have declared a “culture war” is because their faulty understanding of society is that it rests on an imaginary conception of the family as the moral and economic pillar of society, based on patriarchal values and structure, a model that existed for a brief period of time and was the exception, not the traditional family. In reality, family structures vary and change based on larger structural factors such as the economy, technology and cultural factors as well. But, having posited this faulty model as the one and only that works and is functional for society, any variation is perceived as a dysfunction and deviance from the norm, especially if such variations challenges patriarchal ideas and structures.
And yet, these structures change for a variety of reasons that do not mean decline of the Western civilization.
Case 1: divorce legislation is social progress, as sociologist François de Singly notes here. For him (and as research has shown), divorce does not mean disruption or decetering of the notion of coupling but it does mean a right to say no and a right to end bad relationships if they do not satisfy the partners (one should always remember that low-divorce countries are usually countries where women do not have access to divorce and if they do, are placed at a monumental socioeconomic disadvantage, along with the stigma attached, thanks to religious conservatives). Therefore, it is not surprising that financially autonomous women are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunity. Progress! Divorce today is largely based on two individuals making decisions about their respective lives. There are heavy economic and financial consequences, but the real problem is the persistence inequalities between men and women that tend to be exacerbated by marriage. The more a couple has children, the more a man invests in his career, the more the wife’s career slows down and stalls. This is marriage costs mostly borne by women and that is largely hidden as long as the couple stays married and becomes highly visible when they get divorced.
De Singly does not believe that people just practice consumerist marriage (getting into and dumping marriage like one dumps consumer goods). Studies show that women, especially, go to great lengths to maintain and not lose their relationships. Individuals do need some stability but there is no reason to think that can only come through coupling and marriage. We tend to forget that marrying for love is a very recent idea, and, as Stephanie Coontz has demonstrated over and over, this is a factor of destabilization for couples, not a lackadaisical attitude towards marriage.
And for anyone harping about divorce because “OMG, what about the children?”, reading this book should be mandatory.
Case 2: singlehood on the rise, and it is not the end of the world for long-term singles. Singles are on the rise (a 50% increase – includes widows though – since 1990, according to this article) and this trend reveals behavioral changes. Young adults are less eager to move in as couples and are more likely to go solo. In the middle years, this is where there is a large increase of living single, especially for men (especially divorced men who are less likely to have custody of their children).
And as always, social classes matter. White collar workers are more likely to go solo, followed by blue-collar workers. There are still quite a few farmers in France and they are less likely to live alone. They either are married or also live with their parents on the family farm. Up the social ladder, one finds more coupling. Nothing surprising there either: for small business owners, spouses often work together, for the upper classes, greater economic security of two higher incomes makes coupling a more attractive option.
One real consequence of this trend is the lack of affordable and adapted housing.
And since I mentioned Eric Klinenberg’s book, there was also this article in the New York Times on the subject:
“MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.
By international standards, these numbers are surprising — surprisingly low. In Paris, the city of lovers, more than half of all households contain single people, and in socialist Stockholm, the rate tops 60 percent.
The decision to live alone is common in diverse cultures whenever it is economically feasible. Although Americans pride themselves on their self-reliance and culture of individualism, Germany, France and Britain have a greater proportion of one-person households than the United States, as does Japan. Three of the nations with the fastest-growing populations of single people — China, India and Brazil — are also among those with the fastest growing economies.
The mere thought of living alone once sparked anxiety, dread and visions of loneliness. But those images are dated. Now the most privileged people on earth use their resources to separate from one another, to buy privacy and personal space.
Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization — all prized aspects of contemporary life.
It is less feared, too, for the crucial reason that living alone no longer suggests an isolated or less-social life. After interviewing more than 300 singletons (my term for people who live alone) during nearly a decade of research, I’ve concluded that living alone seems to encourage more, not less, social interaction.
Paradoxically, our species, so long defined by groups and by the nuclear family, has been able to embark on this experiment in solo living because global societies have become so interdependent. Dynamic markets, flourishing cities and open communications systems make modern autonomy more appealing; they give us the capacity to live alone but to engage with others when and how we want to and on our own terms.
In fact, living alone can make it easier to be social, because single people have more free time, absent family obligations, to engage in social activities.
Compared with their married counterparts, single people are more likely to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures. There is much research suggesting that single people get out more — and not only the younger ones. Erin Cornwell, a sociologist at Cornell, analyzed results from the General Social Survey (which draws on a nationally representative sample of the United States population) from 2000 to 2008 and found that single people 35 and older were more likely than those who lived with a spouse or a romantic partner to spend a social evening with neighbors or friends. In 2008, her husband,Benjamin Cornwell (also a sociologist at Cornell), was lead author of “The Social Connectedness of Older Adults,” a paper in the American Sociological Review that showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”
In other words, single does not mean alone or lonely.
But this shows that culture may produce trends that social structure need to catch up to:
“Activists say that unmarried people are systematically discriminated against. They pay more for health and car insurance than married people do. They don’t get the same kind of tax breaks. Co-op boards, mortgage brokers, and landlords often pass them over. So do the employers with the power to promote them. “Single-ism—stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single—is largely unrecognized and unchallenged,” says activist Bella DePaulo, the author of Singled Out.”
In the context of risk society and global mobility, certain social structures (marriage, homeownership) may become less adapted to economic realities while others (singlehood and renting) might be more adapted. Because, as I mentioned above, patterns of sociability tend to be a function of the economy.