How aspirational can a society of singles really be?

by Ryan Streeter on October 20, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Joel Kotkin’s latest Daily Beast column takes a look at the rise of singleness and childlessness as a key part of Obama’s base. He also asks whether this trend, celebrated as it is by today’s secular elites who associate “traditional families” with the backwaters, will backfire in a generation as the upwardly mobile singles by definition die out without heirs to compete with the conservatives, evangelicals, and Mormons who are bearing children at a much higher rate than nonreligious peers.

For now, though, the rise in childlessness and singleness characterizes a key bloc on whom Obama depends and which is shaping our current expectations about marriage, children, sex, and family in ways that will have long-term effects.

Kotkin characteristically offers some important data points and insights:

  • In the short term at least, the president and his party are seizing a huge opportunity. Since 1960, the percentage of the population that is over age 15 and unmarried increased by nearly half, 45 percent from 32 percent.
  • Since 1976, the percentage of American women who did not have children by the time they reached their 40s doubled, to nearly 20 percent.
  • Unmarried women prefer Obama by nearly 20 points (56 to 39 percent), according to Gallup, while those who are married prefer Romney by a similarly large margin.
  • A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that the number of adults who said that children are very important for a successful marriage had dropped by a third, from 65 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2010.
  • The number of households with children today is 38 million, about the same as a decade ago, even as the total number of households has shot up by nearly 10 million.
  • In many dense urban areas now, 70 percent or more of households are childless. In contrast, the largest growth in families with children are found in places such as Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Raleigh, and the Salt Lake area, which have relatively little impact on the national culture.