I wouldn’t be shocked if, in April’s General Conference, I were to hear a reference to “All the Single Ladies,” the cover story of this month’s Atlantic. In spite of its utter not-Mormonness, Kate Bolick’s article is oddly resonant of a strand of discourse we’ve been hearing in the Church for the last several years.
In case you haven’t read the article,[fn1] a quick summary: the author finds herself still single at 39, in spite of having had plenty of relationships and in spite of the fact that she expected, at least for some portion of her life, to get married eventually (she points to 30 as the magic age). Now, she finds it less likely. So she explores the world of women who do not (by choice or circumstance or some combination) get married.[fn2] And largely she believes the decline in marriage is because of women’s increasing success, men’s declining status, and the marriage market.
How’s that, exactly? Let’s use her college example: in 2010, 55 percent of college students were women. That means that women have fewer choices of suitable mates. Men in college, on the other hand, have more suitable women. A man, therefore, is less dependent on any given partner because, if she doesn’t work out, he’s got other potential partners. Therefore, he doesn’t need to settle down with just one person. Women, on the other hand, are at a disadvantage—in order to get (and maybe keep) a relationship, a woman has to, essentially, deal with the the fact that, if she’s got a boyfriend, she has to keep him happy. And even that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll stick around. (The converse is, according to Bolick, that in societies with more men than women, women are “valued and treated with deference.” That said, they’re also, she says, kept out of the economic and political realms.)
The Church, too, is concerned that young adults are not getting married. In trying to solve the problem, fingers have been pointed[fn3] at, among other things, twenty-something men’s preference for hanging out instead of dating and their concerns about their ability to support their families.[fn4] And those may be contributors but, if Bolick is right, some of the problem may be structural rather than volitional.
Which leads me to two questions: first, should the Church continue to emphasize marriage and family, and second, what should it do about unmarried persons? I don’t, of course, have any definitive answers—heck, I don’t really have any expertise—but I have a couple ideas.
As to the first question, yes. For one thing, we seem to have some sort of (itsy-bitsy) theological attachment to the idea of the eternal and nuclear family. But I’m also going to say yes because I believe (as I’ve stated before) that one important thing we can do as members of the Church is to try to create a more just society. Turns out that individuals have a 98% chance of escaping poverty if (a) the head of the family has completed high school and works full-time, (b) families with children are married, and (c) the family head waited until she was at least 21 before having children.[fn5] Moreover, the authors say that empirical evidence suggests that the relationship between education/work, having kids within a marital relationship, and not having kids too young and escaping poverty is causal, not just correlated.[fn6] Note that this may not be a significant problem for Mormons—Utah appears to have the lowest out-of-wedlock births in the country and, while “Utah” and “Mormon” don’t overlap completely, that meets my anecdotal experience that Mormons don’t have a lot of babies outside of marriage. But still, to the extent we encourage marriage, we can, presumably, reduce poverty.
As to the second question: I think that, while the Church will certainly continue to encourage marriage, we need to recognize that some members won’t get married. For some, it may be because they group date, play video games, and don’t feel the need to settle down. For others, it may be because they don’t find the right person. Or they’re shy. Or gay. Or something else. But when we stop blaming people for being single, and instead figure out how to help everyone, married and single, grow spiritually and develop a relationship with God, I think we’ll be getting somewhere.
[fn1] Read it, btw. Although I have some issues with the article (and I’m not alone), it’s in the Atlantic, which I consider generally the best magazine in America. (Yeah, maybe you prefer the New Yorker; frankly, I find the Atlantic generally more compelling, plus I have time to read one compelling magazine a month, whereas, at least as long as I have both a job and small children, I don’t have time to read one compelling magazine a week.)
[fn2] My biggest problem with her article is that she does a lot of generalizing based on anecdotal evidence about people a lot like her. It reminds me of New York Times Style section stories, which often strike me as, The reporter knew four people in Brooklyn who . . . . But we’re all sophisticates who know that the plural of anecdote is not data. My contrast to her anecdotes of the unmarried: most of my friends, from high school in Southern California (largely not Mormons), from college at BYU (mostly Mormon), and from law school in New York (largely not Mormon) are married. Moreover, most have 2 or 3 kids. It may be that, being single, she knows more single people than I, being married, do (although, given that none of my high school friends were married when we became friends, I find that unlikely). It may be that it’s harder to get married in New York (where she and several of her friends live) than in California (though, again, I met my wife while we were both in New York). Or it may be that we both know a lot of single and a lot of married people, but she’s focusing on the singles while I’m not. Or it may be something else entirely. But, as long as I ignore the anecdote/data problem, I think she’s written an insightful and valuable article.
[fn3] Like the passive construction?
[fn4] I swear that somewhere I’ve also seen blame placed on video games, but I’m not up for searching for more.
[fn5] Creating an Opportunity Society, p. 70.
[fn6] Id. at 72. I haven’t actually looked at the empirical studies, so I can’t vouch for the authors, but, on the other hand, they seem to know their stuff pretty well, so I’ll believe them until I see compelling evidence that says otherwise.