A Pronatalist Recommendation for 'All the Single Ladies'

A marvelous book on our most important demographic, labor market, and cultural trends.

September 20, 2016

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

Published in March of 2016.

Have any of you read Rebecca Traister’s stunningly brilliant All the Single Ladies?

The book, which came out in March, received strong reviews  - see the reviews in the Washington Post, LA Times, and the NYTimes.

Some huge percentage of book sales occur in the first month of publication -  (I can’t find the numbers - can you help?) - and a book like All the Single Ladies certainly spent some time in the cultural Zeitgeist.  If you were one of those folks that downloaded/purchased (or borrowed?) the book when all the great reviews came out in March, but then let the book slip down your digital/physical pile, I hope that this review will motivate you to prioritize reading this wonderful book.

All the Single Ladies captures - and then goes on to try to explain and understand - some of the most important social, demographic, and cultural trends of the last (and next) few decades.  These trends are the choice that many women are making to either forgo or delay marriage, forgo or limit childbearing, and to separate childbearing from marriage.  Single-person households are now the fastest growing type of household in the U.S..  There are actually about an equal number single-person households (28%) as married couple households with minor children (29%).  Women head up more than half of all single-person households.   

Women are also delaying or forgoing childbearing, as well as choosing to have less children.  The percentage of women past childbearing years (an increasingly slippery concept with new fertility treatments - extensively discussed in the book) who have never had kids was 16.1%.  For women with a graduate or professional degree, that same percentage is 22.7%.  

What Traister does so brilliantly is cast these demographic trends towards delayed or no marriage, and delayed childbearing with smaller families or no kids, as a story of economic and social liberation for women. 

A dominant strain in the social science literature - and amongst pundits of both right and the left - is to equate changing marriage and childbearing patterns solely with childhood poverty.  Today, less than half of all children live in a family with two biological married parents. (15% live in blended households, 7% with cohabiting parents, and 26% with single parents).  Traister does not shy away from reporting the statistics that kids living in single-mother households are much more likely to be poor (46.4%) than kids living in married couple households (10.6%).  This difference, however, is a result of policy choices (around minimum wages, benefits, childcare etc) - and should not be taken as an argument that marriage is the only solution for lowering poverty.  In fact, as Traister points out, some countries with the lowest childhood poverty rates (like Sweden at 2.6%) have the lowest marriage rates.  

I’m someone who worries about the decline in U.S. fertility.  I worry about where we are going to find the students to come to our colleges and universities.  I worry about who is going to pay for our Social Security and Medicare.

Reading All the Single Ladies is a reminder that it is possible to simultaneously have both pronatalist and pro-single women views. 

What we should fight for is that all women are economically able to achieve their childbearing goals.  We should recognize that single home owning households also pay property taxes to fund our schools, and through their work pay the taxes that help fund our social insurance system.  We should understand that folks who choose to not have kids invest enormous amounts of time, energy, and money in their nieces, nephews, cousins, and kids in our community.  We should fight for our health insurance to pay the full cost of fertility treatments.  And we should celebrate the increased range of professional opportunities that everyone can have if they are free to make choices around the timing, pace, and composition of their own family formation and household living patterns.

Those of us concerned about a fall in fertility should fight for better childcare.  (How is the childcare on your campus?).  We should push for more flexible work arrangements - arrangements that benefit all parents. (How flexible are work arrangements at your school?)  We should spend more time talking about improving wages and benefits - and less time worrying about individual choices.  These are not liberal or conservative causes - but pro family (all sorts of families) causes.

Please argue with me - but please read All the Single Ladies and see if your arguments evolve.  Even if you disagree with Traister's arguments and conclusions - you will be learn some new things - and you will greatly enjoy the process of reading this beautifully written book.

I’m not really doing this incredible book justice.  All the Single Ladies is such a good book that it will cause all of our thinking about marriage, work, and kids to be more nuanced and better informed.

Every college president, provost, and dean worried about the impact of demographic, labor force, and cultural trends on the future of their institution should read - and encourage her faculty, staff and students to read - this marvelous book.

What are you reading?



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