Saturday, January 7, 2012

Permanently Single: Is This Where Our Society Going?

My friend Diann, a single heterosexual not quite my age, living alone and loving it in a house in the Connecticut woods, recommends this article from Boston Magazine: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/articles/single_by_choice_why_more_of_us_than_ever_before_are_happy_to_never_get_married/page1

The article has inspired me (gay man not the least bit interested in marrying another gay man - or even a woman, though I like them better), to some reflections.

People used to marry when they regarded themselves as, primarily, part of a family (tribe if you will). They married, and they married someone their family approved of (ethnicity, religion, politics, job), and the important thing was to have a support in old age and for someone to be available to bring up the children.

In my family, in 1850 (across the Atlantic), they married other Jews in their region, and the marriage was arranged young, except in the case of prosperous widowers for whom age was never a bar. And had scads of children. In 1900, in New York, they still married, always Jews (looking down on those from different regions), and always with the intent to have children. There were fewer of those: No one had more than three. If a wife died (usually in childbirth), the widowed husband was soon married off to her sister or his cousin, so the children would have parents. Children cared for the aging relations. By 1940, the first "lifelong bachelors" had appeared, causes not discussed openly. By 1960, the first intermarriages had shocked the family, and after that ceased to do so. By 2000, half of my relations had married non-Jews if they had married at all. Differences in race or religion or sexual orientation somehow were not as upsetting to any of us as the bitter feuds between Hungarian Jews and Russian Jews had been in 1900. (The first family divorce, by the way, had taken place in 1920. It wasn't the last.)

The Industrial Revolution has slowly changed our familial ways. We are individuals now and feel entitled to suit ourselves in these matters. And we have far fewer children (since we learned how not to do so). The problem of being alone in ill health (as I found with a shoulder out of commission last November) is the one that lingers. Of my six first cousins, only two had children (one of them by a white gentile, the other by a black foreigner - both marriages did not last, by the way). I might have married in my teens (like my great-grandfather) but later than that ... I was far too much the loner. I am also openly gay (and not the only one), which is another signpost of rising individuality. This didn't happen - openly - before Stonewall.

Society in the Industrial West has fewer and fewer families and children, let idiots like Santorum rail against it as they like. We have "families of intention," but they are not linked indissolubly as blood families usually are. You can choose your friends, and you can choose to "unfriend" them, however close they may have become. Society must rethink the matter of people who are alone and old, devise new structures.

The present fallback: Bring in more immigrants to do these chores, to care for the old who are childless or otherwise engaged, and to produce the population mass to replace our decline. This situation has many defects. Immigrants are good at such work, and they absorb our ways, convert to our attitudes, but that takes time, a generation or two (as the Dutch have lately discovered). And we may not have two or three generations until the whole Western industrialized top-heavy mass topples over.

Did we reach the top only to find that our pyramid has uneasy foundations?

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