Brad Wilcox is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project, as well as a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and the author of numerous studies, articles, and books on family formation and its many consequences.
Wilcox and Stepman discuss the consequences of fatherlessness, whether the pandemic may have shifted women’s priorities, and the sociological data on happiness. They also talk through whether the class divide opening up around family formation is more cultural or economic, and how to discuss sociological findings around family without being subjected to the tyranny of exceptions.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. And I always flub that line every single time. But nevertheless, I am really happy to welcome Brad Wilcox onto the show. He’s a non-resident fellow, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he directs the Home Economics Project. He’s also a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. He has been a research fellow with Yale, a research associate at Princeton, he’s been with the Brookings Institution. So he’s been around in terms of sociological research and think tanks, both in the think tank world and in academia. He’s also the author of “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America,” and a co-author of the book, “Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.”
I’ve been following Brad’s work for a while, and I would summarize it as putting some hard social science investigation behind concepts that were perhaps intuitive. Or if you talk to somebody several generations back, would be maybe the stuff of grandma wisdom. But he puts a real hard social science lens and actually investigates whether these intuitive truths are in fact, continue to be true in the modern age. And rediscovering a lot about marriage and family and the importance of those things. He’s also been way ahead of the curve in being concerned about, I think the increasing class divisions among family formations. Those have become a staple of all public policy discussion for the last few years, but I think Brad was way out in front of some of those concerns, blowing the alarm whistle on some of these family formation class differences.
But let’s start out with this study that you just came out with. And this is, again, something that folks, I feel like once understood intuitively, but now has to be rediscovered and re-proven. But you have this very extensive study on outcomes for men, focusing specifically on whether or not they had their biological fathers in the home with them. What were some of the impacts you saw of fatherlessness on men later in life?
Yeah. Thanks, Inez. Great to be with you today. So as I’ve been looking at young men at UVA, and really thinking too about their absence … because we have a campus like many across the US where women are more common than men. Been thinking about that. Also just a lot of other trends that we’ve been seeing play out with regards to young men not working full-time in larger numbers, as well as this college divide, gender divide. So it suggests to me that a lot of young men are not flourishing, they’re floundering. A lot of young men are running afoul of the law, of course, in the last two years especially, in the wake of COVID. And wanted to look at in this new research, how does fatherlessness intersect with all of this, with the problems that a lot of young men are struggling with.
And what we found is that young men who are being raised apart from their biological fathers are more likely to be struggling in school. In this case, pretty dramatic findings when it comes to college. Only 14% of young men without their biological father present are graduating from college today, compared to 35% for those young men with their fathers. This is a very large difference. We find also that there’s about a 70% increase in idleness, which means not working, not in school for guys in their mid-20s who are being raised in a home without their father. And young men who are raised without their fathers are about twice as likely to land in prison or in jail by the time they turn about 30.
So again, on a number of fronts, we can see that the young men who are most in trouble, disproportionately hail from families without their biological father present. That’s one of the headlines, if you will, from this new research that we released today.
Yeah. There’s another headline that came out of this research that you actually tweeted about today. You said that fatherlessness is more predictive of a lot of these outcomes than either race or socioeconomic status. Meaning you see more of those poor outcomes for young men coming from the mere fact that they don’t live with their biological father, than their income status or their family’s income status or race, which is obviously this huge conversation in this country all the time. But you’re saying actually, this factor is more predictive than either one of those.
Yeah. So what is striking in this research is that we do see when it comes to incarceration, for instance, that family structure, fatherlessness is a more powerful predictor of incarceration than growing up in a low income home or being African American. In fact, in our models, when we include these other factors, race becomes no longer statistically significant. So that’s I think really quite noteworthy. We also see in this research when it comes to college graduation as well, that again, family structure, fatherlessness is a stronger predictor for young men of graduating from college than is growing up in a low income family or being African American. So I think our public discussion around issues of things like poverty, mobility, crime, incarceration, often dances around what I call the family elephant in the room. And yet when you look at the research closely, what you see is that … not in every case, of course. But in many cases, family structure ends up being much more predictive on all these big issues for kids and even adults, then things like race or poverty.
Like another example of this is Raj Chetty’s work at Harvard with his colleagues, find that the best predictor of mobility for poor kids … it’s going from being poor as a child, to being well off as an adult at the community level. Is the share of single parent families in a community. So that’s why a place like Salt Lake City is much more likely to produce mobility for poor kids than a city like Charlotte, because there’s just many more two parent families in Salt Lake than there are in Charlotte. So again, that research is telling us that often fatherlessness or the breakdown of marriage are bigger factors and some of our major social problems than things like poverty or racism.
Yeah. I know my last guest last week was Ian Rowe, a fellow who’s been connected to AEI as well. But he’s long been an advocate that we need to collect statistics on family formation on the census level. So instead of breaking down, for example, educational gaps or incarceration gaps by race, we need to start looking at this entire category that you’re pointing to, which is, it may in fact be more predictive. But the fact remains that certain groups in the United States, whether that’s racial or socioeconomic … and I think I’d like to focus on the latter, actually. Are much more likely. So if you are, let’s say a working class American, you’re much more likely to grow up without your father in the home.
You have an interesting piece out in Politico as well, recently, about the charge of hypocrisy towards conservatives, right? That red states have higher levels of family breakdown, higher levels of divorce in some cases. But you point out that that’s not really true when you break it down to a more granular level, county by county. And that in fact, conservative values do show themselves in the way that Republicans live versus Democrats. But the big confounding factor there is, of course, class, right?
So how do we start to disentangle … even if we acknowledge that this fatherlessness, or family breakdown more generally, is probably a bigger factor than any of the other threads in this tangle. How do we think about class as related to some of these … I’m going to use the term family pathologies. But I’m sure that there are some people who would like to cancel me for that term. But in any case, how do we start disentangling that knot of why it is that folks in, for example, the working class seem to have less stable families, higher rates of divorce, higher rates of out of wedlock child-bearing, and then the big one that you point to, fatherlessness in the home.
Yeah. So that’s a great question. And I would say it’s important too, Inez, just to remember and appreciate here that when I was born in 1970, there weren’t large class divides in American family life nor racial divides. I mean, there were obviously some differences, but those have exploded since the late 60s. And so it’s just worth remembering that there was a time in American life when it didn’t really matter if you were white or black or Hispanic, rich, middle class, or poor, the odds are that you were living with your own married parents, for instance, as a child, but all that’s changed since the late 60s.
And I think, why is it there’s a big class divide? We see, for instance, among the top 20% of Americans in terms of family income, that about 90% of kids are living with married parents. Whereas in the bottom 20%, it’s a minority, basically. And for working class kids, most of those kids will see their parents break up at some point before they turn 18. So we’re living in a country where there’s a marriage divide and the educated affluent are doing pretty well on that front and people in the working class and poor not doing so well.
So I think this divide is rooted in three different kinds of patterns. So on the economic side, I think what we’re seeing is that working class, poor men are much less likely to be stably employed in decent paying jobs. And it’s partly related to the shift of the manufacturing sector going partly overseas and partly going automated here in the US. And so there are fewer jobs for men who are not on the college track to get, keep, and flourish with financials. I think that’s part of the economic story that has brought us to this point. Because it’s still the case even today, that women tend to like to marry guys who are reliable providers. And when they’re not, they’re more likely to avoid marriage in the first place or divorce them in the second place. So that’s, I think, part of the story.
On the policy and legal front, I think we’ve seen since the 60s, basically government policy, welfare policy, penalizing marriage, and often being a replacement for a husband financially as well. And so that’s one reason too, that there’s been an erosion of marriage in many working class and poor communities since the 1960s. So I was talking for instance to a working class, white family in Virginia, not too long ago. Very traditional in some ways. He was working as an IT tech, she was at home with their two young kids. But it came out in the interview that they were not married. I was like, what’s going on here? And they said, we actually had sat down at the kitchen table and crunched the numbers, because she was on Medicaid for herself and their two kids because his company did not provide health insurance. And so they’d figured out that they got married, they’d lose access to Medicaid coverage for her and for the two kids. So they were just cohabiting rather than getting married. It’s just an example of how our public policy unintentionally ends up penalizing marriage, in this case, among a working class family.
And then the cultural front, as you know, Inez, our whole approach to gender, sex, marriage, and parenthood has become a much more individualistic one. Kind of do what you want, no clear guardrails, no clear norms. And I think for a variety of reasons, the breakdown of a common culture around things like sex and marriage and parenthood has been more challenging for working class and poor couples to navigate than it has been for upper middle class, more educated couples. So what we’ve seen then is that there are these economic currents, these legal and policy currents, and these cultural currents that have all ended up proving to be much more corrosive for working class and poor couples and their families than they have been for the more elite Americans.
And the findings that I see on the cultural front, it’s been striking to me how much, culturally speaking, our elite talk left publicly about family, but walk right when it comes to their own lives. And we saw this in recent report we did in California we called, State of Contradiction. And what we saw was that California elites were more likely to espouse a commitment to a family diversity theory, to affirm a variety of family forms, in public and in theory. But privately, to embrace the idea that they wanted to have their kids in marriage, and privately to be stably married with, with their own kids.
When you think about Hollywood show runners, Silicon Valley executives, university presidents, that whole kind of class of people, both in California and just across the country more generally, it’s striking again, I think how they espouse a kind of progressive ideology in public, but because in part they’re prudent folks, they’re pragmatic folks, they’re much more likely to marry and stay married. And even they’re also the group that’s least likely … this is pretty striking. Least likely to have a female breadwinner. That is a wife and mother who’s taking the lead when it comes to earning. So there’s just this interesting hypocrisy. And it’s problematic, of course, because the message they’re blasting to broader culture is often wrong. And not just hypocritical, but wrong and not helpful.
Yeah. We’re right back to the debate over Murphy Brown, I suppose. Is that the name of the show? I can’t even … this is before my time [inaudible 00:15:08].
Yeah. Dan Quayle was Right, was the headline in the Atlantic many, many years ago in an article written by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the social historian and great writer. But yeah, she was just basically talking about all the social science telling us that the speech that Dan Quayle given on that show Murphy Brown ended up being, basically on the nose.
There’s a huge debate going on now, I would say, in what might broadly be called the realignment. Where you have a reinterest of conservatives into how to incentivize family formation, caring more about the health of the family, as opposed to perhaps the economic limited government side. And at the same time, you have a leftist rebellion against a more neoliberal tack of the Democratic party, particularly with corporations more firmly being on the left side of the political spectrum than they have been in past decades. But within that realignment, there seems to be a debate. And even though it sounds sort of chicken and egg-y, I think it does matter for how we approach, like if both teams, left and right here recognize that there is a big problem. But it definitely matters which side of this chicken and egg debate you’re on in terms of how to go about fixing it. And that is the, does culture precede economics, tor does economics precede culture, right?
So you mentioned for example, that there was a time in America where family formation remained very high, even through economic downturn. So now I’m thinking about, for example, the Great Depression, right? We didn’t see a collapse of the family during the Great Depression, even though economic circumstances were undoubtedly worse for families in the 1930s than they are today. We saw families stay together through that. And it’s interesting to me that you dated it to the 60s. I mean, is this essentially all downstream from the sexual revolution? And has that made us essentially more vulnerable to economic downturn or more vulnerable to some of these economic forces than we would otherwise be?
Or is the Liz Warren side, or at least Liz Warren back before she became Senator, right. “The Two Income Trap,” Liz Warren, is she more right that in fact, the economic situation for a lot of working and middle-class families has made marriage untenable? And so it’s actually economics preceding the decision not to form families in what had been the stable way that had been happening in prior economic decades in America.
Yeah. That’s a great question, Inez, and I think it’s a both-and situation. So in terms of the Great Depression, on the one hand … this is where the left, I think falls down. There was no increase really in single parenthood and divorce in family instability of any major sort in the heart of the 1930s as the economy was collapsing around us. So that suggests that there’s not a straightforward connection between family instability and economic distress. At the same time, though, if you look at trends in marriage and fertility in the 30s, there was definitely a major decline, right? So when people don’t have resources, they’re much less likely to get married and to have children. So it’s not the case that you can look at the 30s and conclude that economics is not important for families, but it’s not the only thing.
It’s also the case too, when you’re thinking about the economic story, when you look at the work of the MIT economist, David Autor and the China trade deal, he charted out ways in which there was massive economic dislocations for workers across particular points in our national landscape, places in our national landscape. And those places experienced not just job loss for men as the consequence of the China trade deal, but also marked increases in single parenthood and not really in childbearing. So I think that’s also more contemporary evidence in favor of the thesis that the breakdown of the manufacturing sector ended up hurting working class communities across the US for a variety of reasons related to international free trade and also to automation as well. So I think that’s part of the landscape and we as conservative and Republicans need to think about ways that we can strengthen the economy for working class and lower income communities that have been left out of this new economy.
And then on another front, though, in terms of … this is more of an institutional and cultural argument that might be particularly more amenable to you. Is thinking about how our schools, what I call, Big Ed, have not been very supportive or amenable or conducive to education for boys. And particularly boys who are not on the college track, as many boys are not. And so we know that even today, most young men will not get a four year college degree. And yet our schools do very little to serve or meet these boys with vocational education or other kinds of programs that would engage them, interest them, give them a sense of self-worth, and put them on a path towards a good-paying middle class job that would make them a good man, a good husband, and a good provider as well. So I think part of the challenge facing us today, is that our schools and our educational system more generally is failing too many males. Which has big implications for working class and lower income marriages and families more generally. I think that’s part of the story.
But then the cultural things that you’ve talked about as well are also a major part of this. And there are some things that I think Republicans could do to address this cultural challenge, like for instance, talking about the success sequence. Which is this idea that if you get at least a high school degree, you work full-time, and then marry before having kids, you’re much more likely to avoid poverty and move into a middle class. In fact, you’ve got only a 3% chance of being poor in your late 20s and 30s as a young person if you follow those three steps before having kids. And I think we can do a better job of communicating the value of each of those three steps, but particularly the value of marriage to a larger young adult audience in our schools and with PSAs sponsored by the government partially as well.
Yeah. I guess there’s definitely more interest on the right, I think at looking at each of those planks than there was a few years ago. There’s also what’s being taught … there’s what’s not being taught, right? Which is what you’re referencing, the shop class. And the old language for it is vocational. Vocational education definitely heavily, heavily, heavily subsidizing the college track at the expense of literally everything else.
But there’s also the message … I don’t know how much of this is a … I grew up in Palo Alto. So obviously, one of those Charles Murray, super-zip type situations. Which nevertheless had a really, really high divorce rate, actually. But the message that I got in school was very much … you talk about a success sequence, right? The success sequence that was taught to people of, let’s say upper middle class background in Palo Alto, especially to women was basically that if you are smart and ambitious, you need to just completely forget about family formation. Forget about marriage. Don’t think about it until you’re well, well into your 20s or maybe into your 30s. Focus on your career. The message was very much that children will ruin your life.
And on the one hand, that was effective in the sense that there was a vanishingly low teenage pregnancy rate and out of wedlock birth rate. But on the other hand, that sequence of life does not work out well for a relatively high percentage of women and men who try to seek it. I think particularly women, because not only do their biological window close for having children much earlier, but their dating prospects in their 30s and 40s are much diminished from what they would be in their 20s in a way that men’s are not necessarily.
And I mean that’s the kind of cultural stuff that I’m talking about because I don’t see … it might be the case that we have, for example, fewer children and a lower fertility rate for totally different reasons in different strata of society, right? Because if it was economic, I would expect the people who are doing the best and who have consistently done the best throughout, for example, outsourcing after NAFTA, all of that conversation, but they’re not having kids either. Or they’re having one child very, very late in life. Is there just two totally different tracks going on in America, where there’s almost opposing social forces and economic forces? What’s going on there?
Yeah. I think the challenges facing the kinds of young adults that you grew up with in Palo Alto are obviously different in kind and character than the challenges facing young adults who are growing up say 10 miles south and east of me in working class central Virginia, right? So in terms of the Palo Alto story, I do think there is … and I see this at UVA as well. There’s this idea that you’ve got to focus on work and having fun in your 20s, and then look around for a spouse when you are approaching 30 and shift gears.
And there’s also what I’d call a pervasive workism, that’s linked here to this, where work is seen as the source and summit of one’s life. And we have seen too, in data from Pew, that a lot of young adults today think that work will be their primary source of fulfillment. It’s more likely to fulfill them than say marriage, for instance. And what they don’t know is that the research actually tells us otherwise. That is that marriage is a better predictor of being happy in life than is being employed. And the quality of your marriage is a much better predictor of your happiness in life than the quality of your job. So I think particularly for many more college-educated Americans and adults, there is this excessive preoccupation with work and its meaning and purpose and status and money, and not enough an appreciation for how much family and friends matter over the course of your life.
So, yeah. It’s a different kind of problem. But we have to remember that in the main … and I can’t speak to Palo Alto. But in the main, college-educated Americans are marrying today in larger numbers than the working class and poor fellow citizens. And they’re remaining married in much larger numbers than the working class and poor fellow citizens. So on average, they’re still managing to put together stable and strong families in ways we don’t see in many working class communities across the US.
I don’t know which direction I want to go here, but there are two, I have two questions here related to your past research. And maybe we’ll go with this, because one of the things that you have really researched is this happiness connection that you’re talking about with marriage. And it seems like we’re in the age of atomization, in 1,000 different ways. We have these trends of forming families later in life or not at all. We have the entire digital revolution, the potential for living in the metaverse and shedding off this mortal coil and elevating our consciousness into the digital space, or whatever. James Poulos is much better at talking about all of this stuff than I am.
But it seems undeniable at this point, we’ve had all these books about it. There was “Bowling Alone,” there was Tim Carney’s book, really showing that … and I can’t remember what it’s called off the top of my head. But really showing that there is this huge divide, just even politically between people who are connected to institutions like family, but also church, for example, and people who aren’t. And that shows up, for example, in the Republican primary. But I mean, so what kind of positive message or what kind of hopeful message might you be able to, or might the social science be able to give us about whether or not this stuff is rebuildable, right?
Because it seems when you are stuck in one of these atomized lives, that there is no possibility of rebuilding that kind of unchosen connections, right? Let’s say you are a late 20s, single living in a city, you have a good job or at least a moderately good job, you’re going out with your friends having fun, there doesn’t seem like … it’s hard to go back, I guess, is what I’m saying, right? You can’t just spontaneously create those kinds of unchosen connections. Now we have the task of putting them back together in a very self-aware and conscious way that I’m not sure quite works.
And here I’m thinking about folks like Jordan Peterson, for example, who are essentially trying to self-aware himself back into a pre-modern mindset with regard to religion and a lot of other things. Do you have any evidence that rebuilding those kinds of connections in an atomized world is possible? Are there other bases where people can find happiness and meaning outside of perhaps the traditional ones that have totally collapsed? Give us some hope here, because we’re all floating like little atoms out in the ethos.
Yeah. I can’t give you a lot of hope for the newer model I think you’re gesturing towards, but I think a neoclassical model still works surprisingly well. So there has been this idea out there, for instance, just to take family formation, family life more generally, that parents are more miserable than childless adults. There was a New York Times story by Lisa Belken a while back that said children do not bring happiness. In fact, more often they seem to bring unhappiness. This is the conclusion of one academic study after the next. But what we’re actually seeing in more recent years, just to … again, one example here. Parents today in America are happier than their childless peers. And certainly married Americans are happier than their unmarried peers.
And then also, religious Americans are happier than their secular peers. And we’re seeing, in fact, in the research that I’ve done that married adults with kids also report more meaning and less loneliness. So I think what’s happening is that people who are managing to form families, connect to religious institutions are doing relatively better than their peers who are not. And in fact, we saw evidence from Gallup that in the middle of 2020, in COVID time, the only group that didn’t see a decline in their happiness were Americans who maintained some regular connection with a church or synagogue or a mosque temple. So who were attending in person after those first couple of months of the lockdown.
So again, another example here. But I think family and community are that much more important in a world that, as you mentioned, is becoming much more atomistic, and where people are spending too much time on their screens. And also in a world that’s, frankly, much more economically unequal than it used to be. So having a spouse, having kids, being connected to some kind of community, whether it’s religious or something else ends up being that much more important. And that’s why I think too, this sort of like, workist orientation you see among some elites, today especially, it’s so off base. So shortsighted. Because I don’t think they appreciate them by the time they hit 45 or 50, if they haven’t invested in a spouse and in children, in something in their communities, their commitment to their workplace and their employer and their career is going to seem awfully hollow to them, and potentially a dead end as they get even older.
I mean, your point to the lockdowns, and obviously that has increased … and we’ve all seen the data now. It’s increased loneliness and atomization that we’re talking about, as well as a host of other mental problems. You’ve seen deaths of despair go up, suicide go up. All of those things. Is it also an opportunity for a vibe shift? And I’m not just talking here about the short term rebound in family formation, which I assume … and maybe you can tell me otherwise. I assume that the short term rebound of marriage and having kids is all the people who put off those things for two years. I mean, I see that with my friends, right? All the rescheduled COVID weddings. But is there the possibility for some deeper vibe shift?
I mean, I know that there are a lot of people, even in my personal life who realized during the lockdown that the job that used to come along with a lot of social perks as well, and that would be more distracting and feel more fulfilling, when it was just you and your spreadsheets and your laptop at home alone every day, a lot of people maybe have reprioritized building community, building family. Famously … there has to be some kind of point turning point in the girl boss thing. Because Sheryl Sandberg, the original Lean In, she has decided to resign from Facebook. She didn’t really announce where she’s going after that. Presumably, she may actually be spending more time at home and leaning out when she was famously telling all young American women to lean in.
Is there the possibility of some real return to at least prioritizing … because you mentioned those Pew surveys that show that young Americans do not prioritize or do not think that their meaning or their happiness is going to come from marriage or family. Have the lockdowns really changed people’s minds about some of those things, have those experiences change their minds? Or do we have so many distractions and fun things in the world to do when you’re 28, that even those feelings will just float out of people’s brains and they won’t return to them, as you say, until their 40s or 50s?
Yeah. I think the answer here is probably polarization, not a broad shift in one direction or the other. So I think what COVID has done, and the Trump years as well, and now the Biden years, is just deepen the polarization in our country. And so what that means for our topic today, I think is that we’re seeing conservatives and religious Americans gravitating towards a more familistic orientation. And progressives and more secular Americans gravitating towards a more individualistic and maybe work centered, perhaps even more politically progressive oriented social justice focused life.
And so what I see coming out here is, for instance, fertility divides between those two sets of groups, broadly defined, increasing, marriage divides as well. Now the big question for me, honestly, is how does class intersect with this? Because working class Americans are in some ways drifting to the right, and yet they’ve also had the most vulnerable families, unstable families. And so I think we’re not entirely clear how that’s all going to play out. But certainly I think one possibility there too, is that we’re going to see a decent number of single guys who don’t have college degrees drifting towards the right. And the opposite phenomenon happening with single women with college degrees drifting towards the left.
We’ve seen that dynamic play out recently in South Korea, and it could play out here in the US as well. So that would be one more way in which these broader family changes intersect with gender polarization in education and politics. But again, particularly for single women and single men moving in different directions.
Yeah. I was thinking, I was laughing internally as you said that, because if there’s any confirmation that in fact men and women do have a moderating and good influence on each other in institutions like marriage, it might be that absent those potential couplings, that single men are going very hard one way, and single women very hard the other way. That seems to be an argument for complementarity between men and women and marriage, of a sort.
But have you had any trouble, for example, doing this kind of work that you do through UVA? I mean, have you encountered the potential cancellation for some of your work, or have they left you alone to speak your truths?
Well, I had a difficult tenure battle. This is more than a decade ago, which I think was directed or arose from my more conservative commitments. And I mean, I lost every level of the process except for the final round. I had to appeal my tenure decision, all that kind of stuff. But the provost ended up giving me tenure at UVA. So that was obviously a welcome development.
And since then, I’ve had a very good experience at the University of Virginia. I teach family, I teach undergraduate statistics, I teach classes on sociology and religion. And by-and-large, people have treated me very professionally here and I enjoy interacting with the students. So I can’t complain.
So I have a related question to that. How do you … because I think you come off, in some ways, very neutral and nonjudgmental in terms of presenting this information. And I’m wondering, because it seems like so much of our discourse is bounded by exceptions or overly tyrannized by exceptions. Whereas if you say that, for example, there’s a higher incarceration rate for young men who didn’t have a father in the home. Immediately, somebody raises their hand and says, well, my mom was a single mom and she raised me wonderfully. And there’s that immediate, if you don’t account for all of the exceptions, you’re almost not allowed to talk in generalities. But that’s the only way we can try to find some patterns in information.
I mean, how do you … for example, your students in classes. I mean, one, do you encounter that kind of exception-based pushback, and how do you push through that to have a productive conversation? Because it seems to me that’s a broader problem, especially as all of these trends continue. You’ll have a higher and higher percentage of people who fall on the wrong side of some of these quote, unquote … “sociological research outcomes.” And there is a natural human defensive mechanism That kicks into play. You feel like, oh, I’m all right. I turned out all right, right? How do you push back through that and have a productive conversation?
Yeah. This was evident in a recent New York Times podcast exchange on these issues where the host, very successful, came from a divorced household and was discounting the argument. Well, I mean, I was raised by a single mom, and I think I turned out okay, on most fronts. My sister’s doing fine. So I certainly acknowledge the point, but I’m also a sociologist and just say, look, on average, kids are more likely to flounder … and we showed that our report today. When they don’t have the benefit of having two married parents in the household. And so there’s an average story here we need to make. Or even really, in fact, most kids who are raised in non-intact families do okay. It’s just that there’s a much higher risk, a much higher group of kids in that minority who are going to end up incarcerated, who are going to end up depressed, who are going to end up using drugs, whatever the outcome might be.
And particularly if you put a lot of those kids into the same neighborhood, you see these problems magnified. So we have to basically appreciate the nuance. And that is that, yeah, plenty of kids do fine in any number of kinds of homes. Many are resilient, but some are not. And if mom and dad don’t make it work, the kids who are not resilient are going to end up suffering in deep and profound ways, oftentimes. And that’s the complexity of the story that I have to try to convey. And then, again, the broader ecological story, which is often lost, is that when you put a lot of unstable families together in certain communities, certain neighborhoods, certain cities, now certain rural places, you see more child poverty, more criminal activity, more economic dislocation. So there’s an ecological truth here that’s rarely acknowledged or discussed when it comes to family, as well.
Yeah. I mean, the other aspect of this … just to bounce it back again to this culture versus structural or economic arguments. There’s this such strong self-actualization mentality that’s coming out, I think from the boomer generation, that people my age, that most of our parents are either very old Gen X or young boomers, that strata. And I mean, I watched, growing up, like I said, most of my … I would say just me and one other girl in our little friendship group did not have divorced parents. And it was just not uncommon. And every person I’ve ever known … and maybe I’m sure there are exceptions to this.
But every person I’ve ever known who comes from either a broken home through divorce or from a home that never formed in the first place, they are like profoundly affected. And if you talk about it that way, that they will say, oh, I have these fears, or this was really hard when I was 13 or whatever. But there really seems to be a national kibosh on that conversation because of the self-actualization stuff of the adults involved, right? We can’t talk about this because … And the phrase that typifies this for me is, oh, if you’re happy, your kids will be happy, right? Which is I think constant on the pages of the New York Times or whatever.
Do you … this is funny because I know your role is as a researcher. But since you research into these topics, do you find that you often have to have these kinds of almost like therapeutic conversations with people? That they feel they can’t accept the results of your research or that if they accept those results, then they’re implicitly criticizing their parents for decisions they made? Or they feel guilty about acknowledging some of the impact of the kind of decisions that your research shows leads to poorer outcomes?
Yeah. I mean, I think there is a certain sensitivity here that one has to navigate when it comes to this. And you’re right. The boomers in the 70s, the me-decade, really wanted to be happy. And they wanted to pursue happiness and fulfillment directly. And if their marriage seemed to be an obstacle to that pursuit, they would jettison the marriage. And I think one of the things I’m writing about in the book … I’m doing a book on marriage for Harper Collins right now. Is just the paradox that what we see for those who are currently married … I think this is probably true for a long time as well. But at least right now, is that couples who are not directly pursuing happiness in their marriage, but are just trying to be good husbands, good wives, good fathers, good mothers are much more likely to be happily married.
Whereas the folks who are pursuing what I call a more soulmate model of marriage, where you expect marriage to deliver happiness and constant emotional connection … or almost constant. A romanticized view of things. Those folks end up being not just, of course, more likely to land in divorce court, but also less like going to be happily married. So I think having a certain realism about marriage, but also seeing marriage as a vehicle for your kids, for your kin, for your parents, seeing it as a family focused undertaking, not as a self-focused expression, are the ones who are, again, paradoxically more likely to be happily married, and to be happy with life more generally. So the point I’m making too, is that the whole, the boomer approach of directly pursuing happiness, I think really actually in life and in marriage, turned out to be a dead end of sorts.
Yeah. I definitely agree with that. I think there are few trends in modern life generally, but discourse in particular that are more irritating to me than the constant therapeutic navel-gazing that I think is … but it is really a feature of the boomers. And of course, we can talk about why they are that way. But they had such a huge impact on pop culture and American culture, generally that that ethos seems to have infused everything in American life. And I worry that actually my generation, millennials, are going to be worse. I used to be more optimistic about my generation, because I didn’t agree with some of the critiques that, for example, that millennials are lazy. I don’t think that’s the case. But honestly, I think on some of these aspects, we may be even worse.
And I was thinking about that with the great handoff at the Super Bowl, the last Super Bowl where they had essentially the 90s kids, right? The 90s kids coming into their own is cultural consumers. I think the next 50 years in culture is going to be all about us, and I think we may be even worse than the boomers that we’re criticizing in that regard. So certainly don’t want to make this into generational warfare. I think that we will be just as bad if not worse on that score.
Yeah. I mean, I’m hoping that your generation will … I’m Gen X. I’m hoping that your generation will do a bit better on this individualism thing than the boomers did. But certainly, one of the things that I’m tracking is just what’s happening with marriage rates and fertility rates. And it looks like, based upon the work of colleagues at Urban and Lyman Stone, who works with us at IFS, that a large minority of young adults, younger than you, about a third will never marry and about a quarter will never have children.
And these will be probably record rates of childlessness and non-marriage going forward with the rising generation. So these are the kinds of things that keep me up at night and make me worried about some of the generational patterns playing out right now.
The world is not prepared for the avalanche of first-person, navel-gazing essays as millennial women, especially unmarried, childless millennial women hit 40. I feel very confident. I’m not a social scientist, but I feel very confident that there will be a huge increase in those kinds of essays coming out and that they will be somewhat insufferable. But Brad, thank you so much for spending this time with us on High Noon. You can follow more of Brad Wilcox’s work, you can follow him on Twitter at … I believe at Brad Wilcox, is that right?
At IFS. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
IFS. So Institute for Family Studies, his project over at UVA, as well as AEI, American Enterprise Institute. So he’s always coming out with new and interesting sociological data on all of these questions. Actually, something we didn’t even get to discuss this time that I think is really fascinating for the age cohort that we’re talking to, or talking about now is, for example, some of his research on cohabitation and sliding versus deciding. So Brad has really, really dug into a whole host of these questions in a very interesting way.
But alas, we are coming to the end of our time talking to you. So I’m sure everybody will go and check out all of his work on all of those different platforms. You’re sure to find something that is very interesting. So thanks again for coming on High Noon, Brad.
Great to have me … I mean, it’s great to be here, Inez. And I appreciate the opportunity.
And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.