The New Normal

A pair of magazine articles recently revealed some intriguing facts about marriage and singleness in America. U.S. News and World Report notes that Americans are getting married later in life. And, according to reporter Michelle Conlin in Business Week, "The U.S. Census Bureau's newest numbers show that married-couple households . . . have slipped from nearly 80 percent in the 1950s to just 50.7 percent [of the population] today. That means that the U.S.'s 86 million single adults could soon define the new majority . . . What many once thought of as the fringe is becoming the new normal." As a result, the way we view many things -- singleness, marriage, friendships, and institutions -- is changing dramatically. For instance, U.S. News and World Report's article focused on the so-called "Tribal Culture," in which single friends form highly organized groups that serve as a kind of substitute family. One such group, in Denver, has 110 members. But that number pales in comparison to some of the groups that are forming online at websites like where literally thousands of people meet to form social networks. The existence of these "tribes" and these statistics tell us something about ourselves, the way we're wired. We are social beings: We need family and community -- even in a culture that prizes autonomy above all things. But Business Week's reporter sees a quite different meaning in the trend she calls "the new normal." Conlin argues that benefits like insurance and Social Security, which have always gone to married couples, should also be extended to singles, cohabiting couples, and homosexuals living together. She writes, "Just because matrimony is good for society doesn't mean that outmoded social benefits are." Now, first let me say that it's important for Christians, when examining this trend, to avoid pointing fingers or acting as if singles are somehow inferior to married people. Surrounded by a culture fearful of commitment and more interested in "hooking up" than dating, even those who are interested in getting married often have a hard time finding anyone who shares their interest. Also, as Paul teaches in the New Testament, not everyone is called to be married. However, there's a genuine cause for concern when people cite widespread singleness as an excuse to promote policies that denigrate traditional families. The benefits we give to two-parent families should have nothing to do with how many families there are. It's a recognition of the great importance of a stable family structure to our society, in all kinds of areas -- the strength of the workforce, the emotional health of kids, and even the physical health of adults. These benefits are one way that we encourage standards that reflect the way we were designed to live -- standards like lifelong faithfulness to one person and a committed mother and father for every child. The more we insist on ignoring these standards, the weaker our culture becomes. Marriage already has enough strikes against it in a culture that largely considers it just one more "lifestyle choice." We don't need to discourage it even more. "The new normal" so-called may change a lot of things, but it shouldn't change the way we look at a God-ordained, time-tested institution. Tribes may have their place in the chaos of postmodern culture, but they are no substitute for marriage and the family. For further reading: Michelle Conlin, "Unmarried America," Business Week, 20 October 2003. Caroline Hsu, "Tribal Culture," U.S. News and World Report, 13 October 2003, 42-44. (Article costs $2.95 to retrieve.) Matthew Continetti, "That's What Friendster's For," Weekly Standard, 15 September 2003. (For subscribers only.) Amy Klein, "Over 35 and still single? So what!Chicago Sun-Times, 10 November 2003. Jennifer Roback Morse, "The Hook Up Culture," To the Source, 3 September 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030912, "Rules for a Reason: The World Rethinks Dating." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030826, "Family Values on HBO?: Truth from Unexpected Sources." Roberto Rivera, "Changing Hearts," BreakPoint Online, 1 May 2003.
  1. Budziszewski, "'Little Platoons'," BreakPoint WorldView, March 2003.
Lori Smith, The Single Truth (Destiny Books, 2002). Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? (Touchstone, 1995). "Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities," Institute for American Values, 9 September 2003.


Chuck Colson


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