WH Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” is summarized on one popular retail website as being about “man’s quest to find identity in an increasingly industrialized world”. This seems an apt description of our time as well, with a slight change. We are now “post-industrial”, but we are living in an unprecedented time of anxiety. We’re all aware of news reporting the rise in use of antidepressants, and most people I know are also increasingly frustrated by the extreme polarization of our politics and ideologies. I believe that we are experiencing these things because we are living in an unprecedented time of change that is driving our anxiety and polarization. The unprecedented nature of the change is not so much driven by the pace of escalating change, in my view, as it is driven by three macro trends that are affecting all of us deeply at the level of family and gender. I don’t believe that ever before in history have we had the convergence of three such macro trends at the same time. So I’ve nicknamed our age “The Great Confluence”. A confluence occurs when rivers or streams merge, and is typically marked by turbulence and muddied waters. Extending the metaphor to the human level, we are living in a time when everything feels unsettled and it’s not easy to see clearly what is happening.
The first macro trend driving change requires a brief return to Sociology 101. Marx and Engels proposed the idea that the economic substructure determines the social superstructure. While I’m not a Marxist by any means, I think they did get that right. A good illustration of this principle might be found in a bridge. When a bridge is built to span a river, the contours of the riverbed and the bedrock below determine the dimensions of the bridge supports. That riverbed and bedrock might be considered equivalent to the economic base upon which society rests. The shape of society is first going to be determined by the ways in which we make a living and cooperate around generating our sustenance. What people have to do to survive and to make a living requires cooperation. When that cooperation takes habitual forms that are widely adopted they become social norms. Norms are like the pylons upon which the bridge rests – they take on the form required by the underlying terrain. Extending the idea of the economic substructure determining social superstructure, one can see that whenever the economic substructure changes it forces necessary shift in social norms.
The economic basis of human society was stable for many millennia. The early hunter-gatherer period extended for unknown period of time back into pre-history. Then came the transition to agricultural society, a condition that lasted many thousands of years. But as recently as 300 years ago, we saw the shift into the Industrial Age. And that has now transformed once again into the Information Age. For purposes of simplicity (admitting some inaccuracy), let’s say that we’ve undergone three transformations of the economic substructure in 300 years – one per century. And not all of society shifts at the same time. It was not so long ago that our small towns in America were mainly agricultural, as some continue to be, so we retain in recent collective memory the social forms associated with that. The Industrial Age reigned supreme until the latter half of the 20th century. Our ideas about the modern nuclear family are largely a product of social conditions that existed during that particular economic structure. We have now entered into a new economic substructure called the Information Age, and all these changes necessitate shifts in social roles and social forms both in the family and in the wider society. So we have had to reinvent and re-imagine our social forms and our roles every century for the last three centuries. All that change creates confusion at the individual level. We naturally feel anxious about what our role really is and what our life is supposed to be about. And we argue about it.
The second macro trend driving change requires a visit to the History Department. My favorite historian is Arnold J. Toynbee of Oxford University. He wrote a magnum opus called A Study of History. That life work contains a study of every civilization that has ever emerged into world prominence. In other words these are the civilizations that influenced the thinking and behavior of the majority of individuals living on the planet at the time in which they existed. Toynbee identified 22 such civilizations that had arisen in world history. His purpose in studying them was to understand what factors led to their rise, and what factors led to their demise. What he found caused him to go against one prevailing theory – historical determinism. A historical determinist believes that rise and decline are an intrinsically predetermined path every civilization is compelled to follow. I might nickname it “historical fatalism”. What Toynbee found through his study led him to believe that the reasons for a civilization arising or declining have to do with the response of its participants to challenges. He said that challenges are bound to arise for every civilization, both from within and from without. But he believed its continuation or decline was a product of how functional the response to each challenge was. I often quote his conclusion, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
I believe that we have passed the zenith of Judeo-Christian civilization, and that we are living in the age of its decline. There is a lot of anxiety around this change in America as the old values and ways of looking at the world are being challenged by new ones. As with any social change, reactionaries form the far right fringe of those who refuse to adapt and believe that the old form represents the only absolute way of being. This is not to suggest that Christianity and Judaism will disappear. If you look back in history to other world civilizations, it is apparent that both Rome and Athens continue to exist. Their influence on Western thinking has by no means disappeared. So I don’t believe that Judeo-Christian values will completely disappear. And I fervently hope that their best contributions to human well being and dignity will remain. But I do believe that Judeo-Christian civilization is demonstrably on the decline in terms of global influence in the war of ideas.
So what is on the ascendant in America? A lot of people seem to believe that the ascendant civilization is Muslim. I don’t see that. A civilization is noted by the wide acceptance of its ideas. Its practices are adopted when they capture the imagination and effort of individuals. The civilization that I see on the ascendancy is an Asiatic civilization. I believe that ideas which have their origin in India have permeated the Information Age. Some of these ideas are Hindu-variety and some are Buddhist-variety, both Indian-born religions. I say Hindu or Buddhist “variety” because I’m not referring to religious dogma. Hinduism and Buddhism have undergone many permutations as they spread throughout Asia, giving rise to philosophies and practices influenced by their doctrines. It is those practices to which I am referring. The kinds of things that I see widely accepted in society today are things like meditation, mindfulness, breathing, Yoga, martial arts, Feng Shui, Reiki, Tai Chi, acupuncture, and the list could go on – all products of Asian culture. I see widespread acceptance of and fascination with these ideas in the West today, although America lags behind Europe in drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots. It is also true that, though these things are contributing to the richness of Western society, the old norms and reasons for doing things are increasingly being challenged by new viewpoints, and it is fueling a widespread sense of decline in values and morals. Things in America are nothing like they were just 60 years ago when almost everyone was at church on Sunday, and Catholic and Lutheran were considered different religions.
The third macro trend or stream of change I see driving our current anxiety and polarization is something that I believe has never happened before in history. It is a condition unique to this age. People have been speaking about and writing about this change for 5 to 10 years now, and there’s been some attempt to grapple with the implications, but by and large I don’t think we have come to terms with the import of this fundamental shift. The historic occurrence I’m referring to is that economic power in the new economy has shifted to the female, and it is affecting our families at a deep, deep level.
The sociologist, Constantina Safilios-Rothschild, wrote that, “The bases of family power are a reflection of culturally defined gender ideologies and gender-segregated resources in the wider society in which a family is embedded.” Translating that into basic English, the way power is distributed in a family has to do with first, what people say a man and a woman should be and what roles they should play, and second, by the access that both men and women have to economic resources in the wider society. We are living in a time when access to resources in the wider society is increasingly shifting to women. According to Pew Research Center, in 1970 only 4% of wives had income higher than that of their husbands. In 2007 that percentage had increased to 22%. Also in 2007 81% of wives were as well educated or better educated than their husbands. Women are now the majority of college graduates and we’ve recently seen in the news that women have also become a simple majority of the workforce. There have been numerous reports of boys falling behind girls academically, so even at the same level of education boys are under-performing compared to girls.
Old stereotypes about gender behavior and roles are increasingly challenged by these changes. We can no longer take for granted that a wife and mother will be the primary caretaker of the children. But what is her role, if not? Even in hunter-gatherer societies the women had primary care of children until boys were old enough to go hunting with the men. In the Agricultural Age, husbands and wives both worked in the home, cooperating in the production of goods consumed by their own household, and jointly overseeing the children. In the Industrial Age, fathers moved outside the home and the genders specialized. Mothers were the unpaid overseers of the household and children. But none of these models fit the new conditions. If women are now the best “information marketplace” workers for the family, what does this mean for husbands? What does it mean to be a man, if the old definitions of protector and provider no longer apply? We are a confused people, wondering who we are, and what we’re here to do. It’s a strange, new world we’ve never been to before. Reactionaries insist the only place for a wife and mother is in the home, and claim that God designed men to be the leaders. On the extreme opposite end are those who seem to feel that men have become irrelevant at best, or are a kind of natural evil at worst.
To all the turbulence of the Great Confluence, add that modern birth control methods have allowed a complete decoupling of sex from marriage, and you have the perfect recipe for the family fragmentation we’re experiencing. We’ve all read the statistics. 4 in 10 babies are being born outside of marriage, and if you break birth rates down along ethnic and educational lines, you find some subgroups in which the rate may be as high as 96%. I have heard stories from more than one school teacher reporting children in their classrooms who have never even heard the word “marriage”, and are amazed to learn of the institution. And among those who do know of and believe in marriage, the divorce risk continues to be around 50%.
What are we to do? Change is upon us, whether we like it or not, and no amount of hand-wringing and polarization will make it go away. What I propose instead is that we need to begin a national dialogue on ways to navigate ahead as wisely as possible. I have made a diagnosis of our times, and I’m sure there will be those who disagree, but we are all familiar with the statistics on the family. Anyone who is a sincere reader of social science and history will agree that family breakdown on the scale we’re seeing is a social ill. Yes, it’s true that plenty of single parents do a fine and heroic job of raising great kids. (I’m one, after all.) Yes, it’s true that divorce is a very great good for unbearable family situations. However, when we get to the current prevalence of family breakdown, it’s time we agree that we have a collective problem.
To start the conversation, we have to accept the f act that old solutions cannot be blithely applied. We cannot carry the day arguing from a moral or religious standpoint on the value of marriage when those arguments are steeped in the views of a waning civilization. Still, every society has understood the need for stable families, however various those stable forms may have been across cultures. America, too, needs to have a way of valuing and forming stable families. The old economic marriage contract based on dependence of women and children cannot be resurrected as women increasingly move into the provider role formerly occupied by men. Yet we cannot escape our mutual need. Even from a purely biological standpoint, men and women cannot continue to exist as genders without mutual intercourse. So unless we intend to commit collective suicide, we must continue to produce children. And if our children have parents that are missing, uninvolved, destructive, or antagonistic toward one another, they will suffer.
In upcoming posts, I will propose some rules for this new road we’re traveling. In the meantime, I’d love to hear the buzz of a national conversation beginning. How can we effectively reverse the trend of family breakdown? How can men and women value each other in a new way now that former religious and economic arguments have lost their power to persuade? And what boundaries are reasonable to place around individual and couple happiness for the sake of the greater good?