Life Without Children, Part 2

Why personal freedom and fulfillment in a relationship is important.

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I wrote last week about recent changes in American life that seem to go against Americans’ understanding of themselves as a family-oriented society. Compared to other developed nations America’s divorce rate is high, its families are unstable and having children ranks low on couples’ list of things considered important for a happy marriage. Americans talk a lot about family values. But their behavior shows other priorities, namely personal freedom and self-fulfillment.

Today I want to hazard a guess about why this is so. I should say at the outset I’m usually skeptical about sweeping claims of historical change. Outward forms of cultural expression change all the time and vary greatly around the world. Basic human nature remains the same. People are no more greedy or venal than they were a decade, a century or a millennium ago. Heads have always shaken sadly at perceived cultural decline. But nothing really declines. Humans have always been a complicated mix of dark and light.

That said, I do believe in one kind of change—technological change, along with the economic changes that power and are powered by technological innovation. The industrial revolution that began in Europe in the eighteenth century marks a decisive break with old social patterns, a break whose consequences anyone trying to raise a family still lives with today.

Prior to the advent of factories and mechanized production most people lived in rural areas, worked the land and depended on their families for basic survival. Now a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, relatively few people are engaged in food production (especially in industrialized countries like America) and the individual, not the family, is regarded the primary economic unit.

In America these trends are even more pronounced. The American economy depends overwhelmingly on people buying things. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the American economy. Persuading people to spend money is now the chief occupation of almost every American with a job.

It’s all of that persuading, that marketing-driven imperative to convince people their lives are incomplete without some product or other, that I believe is one reason American families are on the decline. The other reason is changes in the American workforce itself. Sadly, we are exiting a brief period in American history when American workers had the upper hand, or at least were at parity with their bosses in setting terms of employment.

Of course for much of American history workers were cruelly exploited. Until the Civil War half of the country employed slave labor. During early years of the industrial revolution both children and immigrants were grossly abused in factories. Cheap immigrant labor continues to harvest most of our food, which (along with generous government subsidies to commodity producers) accounts for America’s abnormally low food prices.

Beginning in the early twentieth century government regulation gradually eliminated many of the industrial economy’s worst abuses. Following the Great Depression and the heavy industrialization spurred by World War II unions grew and gradually negotiated middle-class living standards for workers in a broad range of industries.

That era of employee clout has ended. American sentiment has shifted away from relying on government as a check against corporate abuse. Many of the manufacturing jobs that once gave unions influence have been shipped overseas. Wages have fallen in many areas of the economy, requiring households to earn two paychecks to support a lifestyle formerly possible on one. Wealth has become more concentrated—in the past decade the richest 10 percent of Americans owned more than two-thirds of all the country’s wealth.

In other words, the technological innovations that have given us our modern economy with its conveniences and astounding productivity are also what, for lack of a better word, enslave us. Our very survival depends upon convincing people to buy more and more stuff they may or may not need. To make that stuff cheaply and efficiently we have handed over control of our lives to corporations that are not in the least bit interested in family life. (Or rather they are interested in families only in so far as they want to know what makes them tick so they can sell more things to them.)

Life is not much fun in that kind of economy. Everyone works very hard for not much pay (if they are lucky enough to have a job in the first place). When they leave work they are bombarded by messages telling them their lives are not yet perfect enough, but they could become perfect if only they bought…. We scramble to earn money to survive, then we are ceaselessly urged to Spend! Spend! Spend!

You might wonder what all of this rambling about economics has to do with a blog called Life by Faith. I’ll get the faith part in more detail in a later post. For now I want only to say that in such a society a life of faith, and indeed a family-oriented life no matter what your faith background, is deeply countercultural. You cannot serve God and money, Jesus said, and that remains true. Nor can you serve your family and money.

For complex historical reasons Americans now more than ever are tied to an economy and a society that revolves around money. Families are deeply stressed in this economy, especially families toward the bottom of the economic ladder. You cannot force both parents to work long hours then ceaselessly urge them to spend their meager pay on useless junk and expect them to raise mature, stable children.

I suspect that Americans beat their chests so thumpingly about families because, in their heart of hearts, they know their nation’s priorities are fundamentally at odds with family life. People who feel guilty about something always seem to talk about that something a little too loudly. What’s a person of faith to do with all of this? I’ll try tackling that question next week.

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