Earlier this week, Ross Douthat suggested that even if we are about to experience economic and technological breakthroughs, the most convincing evidence of an escape from cultural stagnation would be “sex and romance making a comeback at the movies.” According to Douthat, there has been a decline of the love story, a “cultural void where romance used to be.” There is “very little adult smoldering” and few marriage proposals on offer at the cinema today. “It doesn’t seem coincidental,” he continues, that this cultural void “opened at a time when the sexes are struggling to pair off—with fewer marriages, fewer relationships, less sex.” As if on cue, The Guardian chimed in with an ode to asexuality.
Also this week, or at least I only saw it this week, The Institute for Family Studies and the Social Trends Institute published More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility?, authored by Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone. That report notes that “birth rates have reached extremely low levels in many countries around the world,” including countries with high incomes and generous family benefits. It would appear that universal child care or parental leave programs are not merely insufficient to boost fertility but may actually make things worse as they entrench a “workist” life script. That is, if and when individuals elevate work and careers as the purpose of life, fertility is likely to fall. Kids just don’t provide the desired meaning, it turns out. Many are choosing not to continue our civilization, and it’s not due simply to secularism, or poor economic prospects, or lack of family-friendly policies, or Disney princesses who don’t marry at the film’s end. It’s due to a sense that the meaning of life is best accomplished through a career.
Work, generally, is a good. Honorable and decent work not only allows us to provide for our needs while contributing to the commonweal, but it is also a means for developing our agency. In work we form virtues, develop skills, test our mettle against competitors, and exercise our capacities to make not only the world but, to some extent, ourselves, becoming something. Not having work is experienced not only as a source of financial instability but also, at times, a loss of dignity. In joblessness, we may suffer not merely a loss in social standing but a sense of the indignity of not being able to act, to do fully human things in a fully human way, as self-governing agents who initiate and direct our action. It is good to work. It is no accident that in Genesis God directs Adam and Eve to labor. They are to tend, keep, govern, and fill the garden, after all. In that story, there is no sense that the primordial human vocation is lazing about paradise in endless rest, let alone receiving a universal basic income while doing so.
Still, the idea that work, our labor, is primarily—let alone solely—oriented to a career is reductive. Consider the culture-making labor of a garden, for example. Or the wide range of voluntary associations and clubs which make a town or nation decent and inhabitable, through which, as Roger Scruton elegantly stated, the land is “domesticated.”
Prior to those other forms of labor, in both causation and importance, is the family. Marriage is made by a human act, the conjugal act, which is itself generative in kind, and both the marriage and family bonds are sustained by responsibility and labor. The family is formed and sustained by self-giving labor, and on this work everything that constitutes human flourishing depends. Family is the bedrock of the human things, including the most meaningful things.
And it is increasingly cast aside.
But not by us. Public Discourse is organized around the five pillars of a decent and dynamic society: the human person, sexuality and family, politics and law, education and culture, business and economics. Each is needed for a thriving society, and for society’s members to thrive, and Public Discourse attempts to understand and build those institutions which support these pillars. So it is unsuprising that our archives include ample material for this issue of our collected essays. We value work, and we value family, but we have our priorities ordered.
Mary Eberstadt’s book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, and Luma Simms’ fine review of it, reminds us that scattering of families is underlying cause of “the preeminent psychic howl of our time.” As the family breaks, so too do individuals. The question of identity—“Who am I?”—becomes all but impossible to answer. This lack of identity perhaps explains, in part, why so many might turn to workism as a source of identity or purpose, for if we don’t know who we are within the story of family and history, we at least know that we are VP or partner or employee of the month. Still, there’s a vicious circle there, for as work becomes the replacement for family, the howling identity crisis caused by lack of family worsens the loss of self.
Lyman Stone, co-author of More Work, Fewer Babies, investigated why people choose to have children in his Public Discourse essay “What Makes People Have Babies?” There he argued that the usual economic explanations are not fully adequate. In the end, “it’s about culture.” Certainly, he notes, short-term economic conditions shape people’s intentions about having children, but their ideals, rooted in cultural values, provide a much clearer and more reliable indicator than does their bank account. Furthermore, as the West exports its cultural norms to more traditional societies, we see a new form of “cultural colonialism” in which women in Africa and Asia are informed that they and their societies are benighted and “antithetical to a happy life.” Apparently, happiness means “emulating the family” and work patterns of “white Westerners,” even if those very patters cause the “psychic howl” identified by Eberstadt.
Of course, religion provides cultural norms, and we might expect Christians to have a more positive view of marriage and childrearing than their secular counterparts. However, Mark Regnerus suggests in “Christianity’s Global Marriage Problem” that marriage “is slowing among Christians too.” Even for the faithful, marriage and its interdependence is viewed as risky and perhaps not worth the risk. For some, there is an almost pathological fear of entanglement and (supposed) loss of freedom, as well as a sense that marriage “had better be really good … or it won’t be worth it.” Regnerus, too, notes that “low wages and employment instability” aren’t the driving factor in marriage decline. It’s much more a cultural story of “independence and careerism,” which leave little space for the ideal of sacrifice and willing the good of the other.
Sacrifice and willing the good of the other is the theme of Joshua Pauling’s reflection on “The Beauty of Self-Giving Love in Anna Karenina.” Writing long before the sexual revolution, Tolstoy understands the “tragic effects” of such a self-serving ethos. In Tolstoy’s circles, marriage was viewed with some disdain, with “duplicitous marriages and promiscuous relationships,” and the inevitable negative results for children. Vronsky, one of the major characters of the novel, believes “a man is duty bound to live for himself” and children as nothing more than inconveniences. Against this, Konstantin Levin and Kitty reveal a life and love of humility and self-giving, a theme explored by Nathanael Blake in “The Romance of Ordinary Marriage.” Some view marriage as “bland and boring,” but it is really a way for free and dignified agents—however ordinary they happen to be—to engage in the drama of fidelity and promise-keeping.
Such promise-keeping tends to the begetting of children and the occasions of love and sacrifice entailed with their care and education. But “Couples Who Adopt are ‘Real Parents,’” as Christopher Tollefsen reminds us in a lovely essay from 2016. To adopt “out of an abundance of spousal love” mirrors God’s adoptive and generous love in the Christian account of salvation. In his discussion of Melissa Moschella’s book, To Whom Do Children Belong?, Tollefsen provides an image of marriage and spousal love far more generative and fecund than limiting and confining, as some fear it might be.
In our moment, marriage is in decline, and so too the having of children. At Public Discourse and The Witherspoon Institute we have always given full-throated cheers for marriage, but never out of mere moralism. Marriage is good. We’re for marriage because we are for human flourishing and for human happiness. Certainly marriage is not always easy, and children can be, quite simply, exhausting. Love is love when it is self-giving and wills the good of the other; without those conditions what looks like love is consumptive and destructive. And while it is not obvious, it turns out that human happiness is found only in the gift of self. Work, too, can be a generous gift of oneself, of course, but for many the flight from marriage into workism will result, sadly, not in the finding of self so much as its loss.