My son, age 42, finally married. His bride walked down a red carpet with rose petals scattered by his 8-year-old twin nieces to join a cantor who sang the Jewish blessings under a chuppah, a canopy held by a man on each corner, in a quasi-traditional wedding ceremony. The bridegroom broke the traditional glass under his foot, the guests cheered, and a jazz combo struck up syncopated rhythms heralding the happy couple.
If that sounds more quasi- than traditional, the bridegroom gets credit for breaking through a social trend. More than 23 percent of American men between 35 and 44 have never married. (My son just made it.) The bride runs against a rising tide of unmarried women, which went up 9 percent in the years since 1970, from 38 percent to 47 percent. There are 1.8 million more single women now than just two years ago. They make up one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups.
The expectant mother also leaves the ranks of women — 1 in 5 — who forgo having children. As the numbers of single women multiply, families with children are getting smaller. My two daughters, each the mother of two, fit neatly in the latest data on fertility rates. In 2009, the number of children per mother was 2.0, but according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the figure for 2012 was close to 1.9 per mother.
My family statistics are of small consequence, but they illustrate trends of considerable consequence, both politically and culturally. The marriage gap played a significant part in President Obama’s election to a second term. Singles broke decisively for him, and for very specific reasons. “The real news wasn’t how the singles broke,” writes Jonathan V. Last in the Weekly Standard, “it was that their share of the total vote increased by a whopping 6 percentage points.” Because nearly 3 of every 4 single women are white, they look a lot like Julia, the cartoonish character Mr. Obama appealed to in a campaign commercial, bragging that his policies would take care of her from toddlerhood to retirement and his opponent’s prescriptions wouldn’t. His “gifts” balloon the deficit, too, but that’s beside the demographic point.
Before the welfare reform Republicans pressured Bill Clinton to sign into law in 1996, it was a staple of conservative rhetoric that welfare as it existed had encouraged generations of poor women to depend on the government in a way women once depended on men. The reform turned that around. It’s a remarkable irony that Mr. Obama and the Democrats are encouraging and fostering dependency for middle-class women. The safety net has become middle-class entitlement.
Conservatives, who were offended by the president’s “Life of Julia” commercial, were wrong about its lack of appeal. “Julia” was looked on by millions of single women as worthy of imitation. Single feminists of earlier times who railed against dependency on “the Man” now hail the government of Big Daddy, though such dependency ultimately is likely to be worse. Unlike the 56 percent of married women who voted for Mitt Romney, they’re satisfied with their relationship with a faceless bureaucrat as long as he sends the checks for Head Start, college and health care. They admire Sandra Fluke as a campaigner for government-supplied condoms.
Mr. Obama didn’t pull Julia out of his imagination as a social model worthy of admiration, as many conservatives said. He had read the latest statistics on marriage. Nor was it an oversight that Julia had a baby with no husband in sight. Men are abandoning responsibility. Women rely on them less. It is not so much “The End of Men,” as Hanna Rosin colorfully puts it in the title of her new book, but the end of men as we have expected them to be. It also may be the “end of women” as we have expected them to act.
Shifting social expectations are affecting human behavior. Fewer men and women are marrying. In a widely circulated report titled “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” Joel Kotkin describes the way the family model for most of human history — defined as parents, children and extended kin — is undergoing radical change. For now, a new model dominated by singletons is concentrated in urban centers of North America, Europe and East Asia.
Though reasons are different in different countries, the upending of traditional values among secular societies is written in a minor key. The question is whether it will become the dominant theme.
“The current weak global economy, now in its fifth year, also threatens to further slow family formation,” Mr. Kotkin writes. “Child-rearing requires a strong hope that life will be better for the next generation.” We can all hope.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.