There Is More To Life Than Making Families

A new Pew study finds that young Americans aren’t convinced that marriage and kids should be a priority.

A recent Pew Research Center poll of American attitudes on marriage and children suggests what anyone paying attention has known for years: Young Americans recognize that there is more to life than making families.

Conservatives may decry these results as proof of our declining civilization, evidence that the gays and the leftists and the feminists have overtaken our society, confirmation that the youth have been compromised, and the end is nigh.

But before anyone gets their pants in a bunch, take heart: This research offers a very limited result.

In the Pew survey, respondents were merely asked to indicate whether society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority or, in the alternative, if society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children. At best, a vote for the latter suggests an acknowledgment that some people might have other priorities, and society is none the worse.

The survey didn’t inquire if participants were against marriage, or hated children, or wanted to abolish all institutions of modern family life. Instead, the study interrogated: Is it OK if people value other things? And half (50%) of respondents—but 69% of those aged 18-24—answered “yes.”

The question then, is why are we surprised—and more to the point—what’s the problem?

No one asked my opinion, while they were responding to the Pew survey, but for my own part, I think other priorities are great. Marrying and making babies are wonderful, but I wouldn’t want to exist in a world in which these were the only priorities. Such a world would offer no science or innovation, it would produce no literature or art, and we would be much the worse.

While not devoid of relevance, the institution of marriage is in a state of flux—one needs only to look at the increasing acceptance and recognition of same-sex marriage across the United States to see how much has changed in less than a generation. There is recognition, at least for the polyamorous—and serially monogamous—among us that it’s unrealistic to expect our needs will be met, in perpetuity, by one person. That’s passé.

There’s recognition, too, even among the family-minded among us, that there’s more to life than pair bonding and childrearing—to find fulfillment we need work, friends, hobbies, and other passions.

But let’s face facts: Marriage and childrearing aren’t going anywhere. Plenty of people derive great satisfaction from marrying and baby making, and this is unlikely to change. But it’s no surprise that the youngest Americans recognize the social value of other things.

In an uncertain world, the promise of marriage as a sort of insulation—a bulwark against danger, a port in the proverbial storm—may resonate. Maybe there is safety to be found in the recognition of family life, and for many, that is an attractive offer, one that is sustaining, even at a relatively early age.

Nevertheless, the social expectation of marriage is not what it once was. And for a generation whose cultural touchstone for married life is The Bachelor—and for which divorce seems a likelihood, if not an eventuality—there is also recognition: Marriage and children are not a guarantee of happiness. For many, they’re a source of abiding joy. But in these changing times, they’re also no longer necessary.

Adina Giannelli’s writing has been featured in publications including Babble, Feministing, Salon and the forthcoming anthologies Book Lovers and Three Minus One Equals Zero.

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