"First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes the baby in the baby carriage," goes the rhyme. Unfortunately, in large swaths of American society, this rhyme is playing in reverse, with dire consequences for lower-income Americans.
Given five decades of deteriorating marriage trends, it appears Americans concur with H.L. Mencken, who joked, "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who'd want to live in an institution?"
Since 1960, the percentage of married Americans plunged from 72 percent to 51 percent last year, a record low. Meanwhile, babies born to unwed mothers skyrocketed from 4 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2011, another ominous record considering that out-of-wedlock children are 82 percent more likely to suffer poverty and other social ills.
However, Think Again before assuming Americans, like Mencken, believe that "the longest sentence you can form with two words is 'I do.'"
A 2010 Pew Research/Time magazine survey concluded that the institution of marriage "remains revered and desired." Though marriage isn't "as necessary as it used to be," the study reveals that married people are significantly happier with their family lives, seven in 10 18- to 29-year-olds want to marry and 77 percent of Americans believe marriage makes raising a family easier, which remains a "very important" reason to marry.
If marriage is so revered, why aren't more Americans marrying and having in-wedlock children?
The Pew study confirms what Charles Murray chronicles in his best-selling book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." American society is becoming as socially stratified as the vintage English world of "Downton Abbey." Whereas in 1960, Americans shared bedrock moral values, behaviors and even neighborhoods, irrespective of class and education, today we're separated into cultural and income enclaves with profoundly differing values and practices - upper-class "Belmont" neighborhoods where college-educated, white-collar elites reside, and "Fishtown," where less-educated working classes live.
"It's not the existence of classes that is new," Murray contends, "but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values." As Fishtown's civil society atrophied, its residents suffered joblessness, family instability, poverty, government-dependency, crime and unhappiness. Meanwhile, cocooned Belmonters worked, invested, married, raised children, volunteered in the community, practiced a religion - they prospered. To recover, Fishtown needs a civic Great Awakening to revive America's original foundations of family, vocation, community and faith.
More marriage and family formation also is needed to counter another grave challenge - declining fertility. After decades of deteriorating demographic trends, America needs more babies, asserts Jonathan Last in his new book, "What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster." Since low birthrates are infectious, "there's no precedent in recorded history of societies experiencing long-term peace and prosperity in the face of declining fertility and shrinking population."
Low fertility and aging societies are less entrepreneurial, economically dynamic and secure because risk-averse older people seek to preserve - not invest - capital; a shrinking base of workers must support ever-growing retiree expenditures; when older majorities disallow entitlement cuts requiring tax increases on the younger, it makes having babies (future taxpayers) less affordable; and entitlements crowd out defense spending.
Notwithstanding the explosion of out-of-wedlock babies in Fishtown, America hasn't sustained a fertility rate above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since the 1960s. In 2011, it hit a record-low 1.93. Consequently, America's median age rose from 29.5 in 1960 to 37 today. Meanwhile, the ratio of workers to retirees shrank from 40 in 1946 to 2.9 today.
Though foreboding, America's prospects are better than the rapidly aging nations of East Asia and Europe, where decades of sub-replacement fertility rates are causing dramatic population contraction. Ironically, fertility decline was already a global phenomenon in 1968, when "The Population Bomb" by Paul Ehrlich predicted overpopulation would trigger imminent mass starvation.
Today, 97 percent of the world's population lives in countries with declining fertility. To avert "turning into a decaying nation," and facing a fertility rate of 1.3 births per woman and devastating population declines, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the group Boyz II Men to romance Russians into Valentine's Day baby-making.
In Japan - where the fertility rate has been below 1.5 births per woman since 1995 - more adult diapers than baby diapers are sold, and the economy has been stagnant for decades. With a median age of 45 and 2.6 workers per retiree (falling to 1.2 by 2050), spending on the elderly has exploded Japan's debt-to-GDP ratio to 229 percent. Last month, Japan's new finance minister made headlines when he told a social-security-reform committee that the elderly should "hurry up and die."
To avoid these economic and societal death rattles, America needs more marriages and babies - in that order. With an "ideal fertility rate" of 2.5 births per woman (according to Gallup), Americans actually want more babies, and as the Pitt-Jolie children attest, kids prefer married parents.
Think Again - wouldn't it be wonderful to renew these commitments on Valentine's Day?
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.