New “emerging commitment devices” aim to hold society together. The notion that family structure–replaced through fertility, impacting demography, and influencing society–is a key aspect of global sustainability may seem trite (and tried as well as true) to many. But David Brooks makes the case that untethered social freedoms have a downside:
My view is that the age of possibility is based on a misconception. People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.
The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like.
This argument resonates with me because my first forays into global policy occurred in United Nations conference rooms where the issues embedded in Brooks’ op-ed were dissected and debated. The issue was nowhere more articulately explained than by the former Democratic Senator, a giant among elected officials–and the type we rarely, if ever see today–was a first-rate scholar who translated deep knowledge into wise policy. His report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” stated the problem in context of the US struggle with civil rights, urban poverty, and inequality. (It made an impact, to be sure.)
The family issue are vitally important to a nation’s health and prosperity. Consider Russia’s mad dash to increase fertility, Japan’s economic crisis resulting, in part, from declining population pyramids, and other arcane policy issues that shatter societies quietly but severely.
As the Kotkin report notes, the one cited by Brooks in his Op-Ed :
The team that composed this report — made up of people of various faiths, cultures, and outlooks — has concerns about the sustainability of a post-familial future. But we do not believe we can “turn back the clock” to the 1950s, as some social conservatives wish, or to some other imagined, idealised, time. Globalisation, urbanisation, the ascendancy of women, and changes in traditional sexual relations are with us, probably for the long run.
Seeking to secure a place for families requires us to move beyond nostalgia for a bygone era and focus on what is possible. Yet, in the end, we do not consider familialism to be doomed. Even in the midst of decreased fertility, we also see surprising, contradictory and hopeful trends. In Europe, Asia and America, most younger people still express the desire to have families, and often with more than one child. Amidst all the social change discussed above, there remains a basic desire for family that needs to be nurtured and supported by the wider society.
Our purpose here is not to judge people about their personal decision to forego marriage and children. Instead we seek to launch a discussion about how to carve out or maintain a place for families in the modern metropolis. In the process we must ask — with full comprehension of today’s prevailing trends — tough questions about our basic values and the nature of the cities we are now creating.