Do Single People Have As Much Connection To Their Communities?

Is Our Culture Shifting Away from Marriage and Families?

I’ll admit it. I’m a big David Brooks fan.

Brooks is a moderately conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times and I’m an unabashed liberal.

Regardless of his politics, Brooks is sort of a social philosopher. He uses statistics to help cultivate his worldview and tends to make very pithy observations. Last week’s piece, called “The Age of Possibility” is a perfect example.

Much has been written – here and elsewhere – about the changing face of a “typical” U.S. household. More people are single. Fewer are having kids. This has taken place at a more rapid rate in various Asian and Scandinavian societies as well. While it’s generally hard to decry the results of unlimited freedom and education, sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

It’s not whether single people CAN be as connected to their communities, it’s whether they ARE as connected to their communities as people with marriage and children.

“Like most Asian societies, Singapore used to be incredibly family-centered. But, as the economy boomed, the marriage rate plummeted. Singapore now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. “The focus in Singapore is not to enjoy life, but to keep score: in school, in jobs, in income,” one 30-year-old Singaporean demographer told the researchers. “Many see getting attached as an impediment to this.”

Says Brooks, “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.”

I happen to agree with him. I’m much more likely to be active in my community as a homeowner, parent of a school-aged child, and member of a local temple. Before you overreact and tell me that YOU’RE a single mom and YOU belong to church, I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to do so.

I am saying that by planting roots in a community – by owning a home, sending your kids to school, and building a sense of permanence with your family – you’re much more likely to feel connected to your community than if you were, say, like I would be without my wife.

If I were single today, I wouldn’t be living in a suburb, wouldn’t worry about schools, wouldn’t meet my neighbors, wouldn’t belong to a temple. What would I be doing? Dating, buying nicer things, and traveling more. It’s fun stuff, but such solo pursuits do little to enrich a community.

Understand, I’m not condemning single people, because I was long single. I’m reiterating Brooks’ observation that it’s not whether single people CAN be as connected to their communities, it’s whether they ARE as connected to their communities as people with marriage and children.

Brooks concludes the same thing that I would, “The problem is not necessarily a changing family structure. It’s people who go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open.”

Please read the article here, and share your thoughts below.

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  1. 1

    Community can take on many meaning. Its the place you live, the place you worship, a group of like minded people sharing mutual interests etc.

    I think single people in the suburbs tend to be pretty disconnected, spending much of their time working and commuting. In cities however, young single people become active members of their community. I was a member of a neighborhood association when I was 27. Many of my friends run an organization called Young Involved Philly They are receiving accolades for their contributions to the betterment of neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Some are marrying, some are having children, may remain single.

    I understand that the people I associate with are a subset of young, single people because we are urban and mostly pioneers in neighborhoods considered  undesirable  5-10 years ago. But that doesn’t make us an  anomaly   there are groups of single people across many  metropolitan  areas across the country like this.

  2. 2

    I am connected to my community as a single, non parent person. I attend church, volunteer, practice yoga and go to work…where I commune with coworkers and clients.

    I have been unsuccessful in finding the one…on-line or off…not ashamed to admit my shortfall in this area…but do not at all think I am motivated by keeping my options open.

    I put off buying a home because I thought I would wait till I got married…this year, I went ahead an bought a home. A one bedroom unit that I hope to rent out one day when I get married and move in with Mr. Ordinary Decent Guy.

    I can only really speak for myself, Aunt of 7 nieces and nephews and pseudo aunt to a plethora of friends children….

    I am connected to my community…because it is better than going home to an empty house.  

  3. 3

    Evan, Mr. Brooks does not provide  any evidence in support of his statement that married adults contribute more to the community than single adults. He merely slips  that assertion  into a paragraph toward the end. The only statistics he provided in the article  were marital and fertility rates and survey data.

    In real life, I see no evidence that married people participate in more community activities. It could be argued that not having children to raise means that single childless individuals have  more time to devote to community. But  Brooks can’t just make this assertion (about single people contributing less to their communities and the “long-term future of their nation and their kind”) with no proof to substantiate it. That is unfair.

    Other than that: I’m like you, Evan: married, kids, generally liking Brooks’ articles because they provide food for thought even when we disagree. Brooks time and again stands for hard work and not giving in to short-term gratification, which I also believe in.

  4. 4

    I think single people definitely do contribute to their communities – but not necessarily in the same way as married folks / families do.
    For example, I don’t have children, so getting involved in the schools in my neighborhood is not nearly as high a priority for me as it would be if I had my own children attending those schools.
    But – on the other hand – there are a bunch of charities that I do support (with cash and/or time/effort donations) that I would not be able to support as much – or at all – if I was  raising a family (which takes significant cash, time and effort).
    And the 10 years I spent serving as the financial director on the boards of 2 non-profits would most likely not have happened if I had been raising a family during that time.

  5. 5

    I do not see that much of a correlation from my and my friends’ experiences. A person’s level of connection to their community depends on the person, and on the community. There are communities that are already active and there’s not much a new resident can do to bring them down. Then you have streets and neighborhoods that do not function much as communities and there’s, again, not much one can do. Two years ago, I moved from one suburban street to another. My old street, everyone knew each other, people were out every day, walking, chatting, and saying hi to each other. My new street, I only talked to one living being during the first month after I moved, and it was a dog. She’d gotten loose and run across the street to play with my dog. I walked her back to her house and spent some time trying to locate her oblivious owner. Trina is still my best friend on my whole street, always greeting me with a WOOF. My next door neighbors haven’t talked to me in over a year. Their last words to me were “you will hear from my attorney” (which, afaik, they do not have). Apparently they’d decided that a part of my property belonged to them, I hired a surveyor, who found in my favor, and they haven’t spoken to me since. (To be fair, I have met all my neighbors on other sides of my house, and they’re all very cool!) This past Halloween, TWO houses on my street had their lights on. One was mine. I had a total of five kids come to my door. My old street, everyone was busy either trick-or-treating or passing out candy. Both streets are within two miles of each other, both populated by families, either with school-aged children, or with children grown and out of the house. We have been considered a good school district for many years now, so a lot of people used to move and stay here for the schools.
    Then there’s the fact that you only want to be involved with your community so much. On my old street, there were apparently cliques and gossiping about residents behind their backs. There were block parties that only a fraction of people on the street knew about, we’re talking a small dead-end street. I didn’t belong to any groups, and the few times people tried gossiping about any of my neighbors, I stopped them in their tracks. I cannot stand this stuff, and do not want to come home to it after a long day at work.  
    Then there’s also the fact that belonging to a suburban community is IMO overrated. The thought of owning a house and mowing a lawn makes me want to chug a bottle of red so I’m not capable of forming a thought anymore. Also, at least in my area, property values are still going down. My house is worth significantly less than what I paid for it, and about as much as what I owe on it. Outside of areas like CA, I would not recommend buying a house to anyone these days, if they can avoid it. (I had no choice; but it was an inexpensive house to begin with, so I’m fairly optimistic.) No sense of community is worth being underwater and trapped in a suburban home with no way out.  
    So here’s what we have in the suburbs. At the same time, a few of my friends have moved to more urban areas recently and are loving it. They can and do walk anywhere, are surrounded by local coffee shops and other small businesses where everyone knows everybody else, and generally tell me how much more connected to their communities they feel than when they lived in the suburbs. Ironically, almost all of these people are single (divorced, with kids out of school). It is very similar to what Julia #1 is describing. It’s not all cut-and-dry and neatly divided by one’s marital status.

  6. 6
    Karl S

    I don’t disagree with the article, but it seems very selective about the kind of community being referred to. I imagine single people are involved in all kinds of other communities that aren’t related to schools and the suburbs. A community is merely a collection of people bound together by an idea or activity after all.

  7. 7

    I am divorced, middle-aged, have no kids, and own a cute little two-bed two bath home on a cul-de-sac in a quaint waterfront town in Northern California. I know my neighbors, most of whom are married empty nesters, and we invite one another to each others homes for parties. In fact, I am hosting a wine and cheese party next weekend. I also work as a teacher in my town and attend community parades that take place on the main street. A few days ago I attended the annual Xmas tree lighting ceremony. I attend jazz and blues peformances that are put on by the local restaurants and pubs.   I am also a member of the singles group at my church, which is about a 10 mile drive from my town. When I was married, and lived in a big city in Southern California, I was rarely involved in community activities.

  8. 8
    David T

    I believe being a parent plays a much bigger role in being community oriented than being paired with a partner. I can think of many insular married couples, but not married couples with children.   I also see   community oriented single parents.   I do agree that having someone to share the parenting   and household maintenance load frees up more time to be involved in community, so coupled parents might be more involved. If someone NEVER partners they are less likely to have children, but I really believe children almost force people into community interactions. Aristotle pushes the idea of nuclear families being sort of like seed crystals that the entire society is composed of and is a reflection of on a larger scale.   I think that is a load of horse-hockey. F*** you, Aristotle! (Good thing he ain’t around to argue, cause I bet he is better at rhetoric than me.)
    Declining fertility presages the economic collapse of a country?   Yes, Russia will likely not be able to sustain its military in another generation, but I don’t know that is a bad thing and I don’t think it is because of a self centered singledom culture. A struggling economy and high alcohol related death rate is more to blame. China is about to ditch their one child policy.   For all of that policy’s problems, I bet China is better off today than it would be with 2 billion people to worry about.   Japan’s population is on the decline because of economic concerns. Frankly, sizing your population to fit your economy is a heckuva lot more sustainable than having an economy that only works like a pyramid scheme counting on population growth. I am not convinced that the decline in fertility that accompanies higher education and more professional opportunities is such an awful thing, though I will allow that being childless will permit people who tend towards isolation to remain so.

  9. 9

    Once again I find myself nodding at Goldie’s comments.
    I’ve lived in a few different parts of the country at various stages in my life, and I think there are strong regional differences that also affect how people participate in the community.

    FWIW, living in the South I think a lot more singles remain connected, participate in a community,   and give back through church.   I’m not a regular church-goers, but I saw single people who participated that way heavily just b/c so many people you know are part of that (and frequently invite you to participate).   

    I also think the in some parts of the country, people are just more open and friendly. I’ve lived in New England, Canada, the South, the Midwest, and now the West Coast (my least favorite).   I spent a good portion of my adult life in the Midwest, and definitely found people there to be open and welcoming.   I’ve never lived in the Pacific Northwest but was talking to a college friend who has been there for many years who described the people as polite but not that friendly or accepting of new people.    I do think home ownership of some type can influence things, b/c in apartments, the residents are always in flux.   Single people I think become part of their neighborhoods when they own property and stay for a while (my experience living in a condo that had singles, divorcees, and couples).   It was a very nice community but again, it was people who for the most part were staying put for several years at a time.   In some part of the country,   single people have a much harder time purchasing a home and move a lot more.   So I would imagine a lot more singles in the Midwest or South can buy a a house and settle down than in the Northeast or the West Coast (esp. California).    I think I’m a bit different in that whether renting or buying, I do like to have roots and the idea of changing apartments every year is really unappealing.

    I think individual values matter, whether you are single or married, and I’d wonder about statistics on volunteering based on both gender and income (the latter influences perhaps how much time you have and how much you want to give).   As a regular volunteer and mentor, I think a LOT more single women participate in those activities…sometimes hoping to meet single males (I personally think it’s an awful place to look b/c I just don’t think as many young, single males participate, although in my current main volunteer activity, I see more than I have anywhere else).   But perhaps it is part of a need some women have to nurture and take care of someone even if you don’t have your own kids.

    An i-banker or consultant can’t volunteer like a teacher or someone else who has a better work-life balance.   A person who has to work longer hours and is perhaps hustling to make it also is less likely to “participate” in anything extra.     

    I have no trouble believing that a single childless man might not be as involved, might move around more, and might have fewer roots, but I do think women tend to nest at a certain point whether they have a man or not.    I agree with Karen…if things ever change, I can re-nest someplace else, but it doesn’t stop me from making myself a part of something right now.

  10. 10

    I agree with the comments about living in the suburbs vs the city.   I stayed out in the suburbs when I got divorced because I wanted my kids to be able to stay in the same school district.   I live on a quiet culdesac and know most of my neighbors, all of whom are married, some retired, some with kids.   They are nice enough folks, but I do feel very detached out there and can’t wait until my youngest is out of school so I can move to the city.   I do work downtown, and 95% of my social activities are in the city, and feel so much more connected to the community there than I do here in the burbs, where I have to get in my car and drive to get anywhere, have an awful commute, and have next to nothing in common with the people I live near.

    The reality is, I could have written all of the above during the time I was married too.   Being married had nothing to do with how connected I felt to my community then and being single has nothing to do with how I feel now.   Having kids sort of “anchored” me here, but I’m not sure that was necessarily a good thing.

    1. 11.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      Appreciate everyone’s thoughts. And @Anita? Let’s just say that Bella DePaulo is, in general, far more biased against married people than Brooks is biased against single people. She views everything thru this us vs. them prism – where the “us” is blissfully happy single people and the them is smug married people who are obsessed with getting those people married. As I’ve long pointed out, married people could not care less about whether you’re married or not. Do what you want with your life, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. By the way, kudos to all you singles who are a part of your communities; I know that I didn’t think much about my community until I had my own family. Personally, just because I did a little volunteering and knew two neighbors doesn’t mean I was really investing in my “community”.

  11. 12

    Fan of David Brooks?!?   Evan, say it isn’t so! I think you’re going soft (headed) as you get older.   😉

    In all seriousness, I DO think that parents are more invested in their communities and married people even more so.   The reason is simple economics.   Married people have more time and money resources than singles and are therefore able to free themselves more often than singles.   Second, I think that singles — particularly single women and mothers — aren’t included in community activities as often.   I think many women are threatened by attractive single women interacting with their families without a male partner present.   (Truly a weird dynamic since I would especially never want a man who was married and interested in me.   It doesn’t get much creepier.)

    As a resident of California, I can very much understand Brooks description of people who “perpetually” keep their options open.   One wise man calls it living in a state of “perpetual adolescence.”   This single concept is the biggest problem I have with dating at this point in my life.   The majority of men out that I encounter seem to never see really digging in roots with someone else — let alone finding any reason whatsoever as to why they would want to step-parent my children.   

    It’s funny.   I know a lot of adults who are still trying to “find” themselves.   And they look in adventure sports, recreation activities, drugs, spas, international travel.   Yet the last place they seem to want to really experience and fully commit to are long-term relationships — that includes long-term relationships with people in their community.   I find it a little ironic that several dating websites actually perpetuate the more-is-more mentality by centering their questions on travel destinations, adventure spots, etc.   Honestly, I really don’t think much salient information can be gleaned from someone’s travel destinations other than that the person is not an agoraphobe.

    And back to the article. yes, David Brooks does sometimes do nifty things with statistics and this article is a good example of that.

  12. 13

    Oh this is something I think about. I definitely think you can feel invested in your community and be a single person especially   if you are involved in volunteering and charity work for local causes. I come from a small countryside town in Scotland. Everyone is neighbourly here partly because it is small. At least I am extremely unlikely to go out on any day and not bump into anyone I know or start up conversation with someone I don’t. I wouldn’t feel right if I lived next to someone and didn’t know them. I know that   in London a lot of people don’t ever talk to their neighbours unless they have a complaint which is quite different from what I’m used to. I don’t think urban dwellers are less community-friendly than rural folk, I think they do community differently.

    I definitely think the situation is different between the UK and the US (correct me if I’m wrong). I get the impression that there are more church goers in America and that people will set themselves up in a church as soon as they move to a community. And my extremely limited point-of-view based on what I’ve seen on TV (I know – not a great source) is that Americans are more into community than we are. My friend’s sister lives in London and when she takes her children to school, none of the parents talk to each other and few contribute to school fundraisers. I totally think doing a little volunteering and knowing a few neighbours is more than a lot of people do community-wise in a lot of places. In fact, if a lot of people even did that they’d think it was “really investing” in the community. I’m unsure what investing really means to me. All I know is that having children helps people put down roots so it makes sense that they’d feel more connected. I guess when you   have children, you think about stuff you never thought about before.

  13. 14

    Evan, usually Bella DePaulo is more shrill; but in this instance, she makes a much stronger case than David Brooks does. She rightly pinpoints the weaknesses in his article.

    But even she missed a few, that other commenters here have picked up on. The assumption that singles are less involved in community, the assumption that community is necessarily always a good thing (Goldie), and the assumption that community is the basis of a “long-term future of their nation and their kind”.

    Among these three things, David  Brooks attempts to draw a straight line: family –> community –> national prosperity. But he  provides no support whatsoever for these associations. He expects us to trust him in jumping from point A to point F to point 100.

    It could be  argued that the reverse  is true:  America was founded on a very strong sense of individualism, much more so than other nations. Individualism has its good and bad points, like everything else. You want to belong to a larger group (this is human nature), but you also see that being part of such a group can stifle innovation, independent thinking, and individual freedom.   I’d argue that these things – innovation, independence of thought, and individual freedoms – were essential to the success of the United States as a nation.

    Now I find it ironic that Brooks, a Republican, is arguing in favor of community when all his party focuses on individualism. But he has to make a better case for his arguments. This article itself doesn’t do it, and I’m not even sure history can bear it out.

    1. 14.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      @Helen – very well said. Couldn’t argue with a word
      @Jenna – 1) Yes, seriously. 2) You’re right about LA. 3) Don’t post consecutive comments, please.
      @Gina – Doing fun things isn’t being involved in the community. If it were, I’d be a community organizer, since my wife and I are about the most social people we know. Community involvement, by my standards, isn’t about paying for the right to take classes, see shows or drink wine; it’s about participating in local government, PTA, neighborhood associations, volunteering to keep streets clean or throw a parade, etc. One is about bettering your life; the other is about bettering others’.

  14. 15

    Seriously? You’re kidding. Many married people with children I know are extremely inward-focused and self-absorbed. They only care about their spouse and kids.  They lose touch with longtime loyal friends, don’t have time to volunteer unless it has something to do with their kids, don’t have much going on in their life except the family. That may be inevitable because having a family takes  a lot  of work, especially if both parents are  working too.

    I’m tired of people making it out like single people are selfish, when I feel I am far less so than many coupled up people. As a single person I actually have time to  be a supportive friend to many people and volunteer in my community.   I have time to get involved in the lives of others. Dating is only one part of my life, I don’t feel obsessed with having a husband. In fact, as much as I get annoyed at times about having been single for so long, it’s allowed me to become a much more full, well-rounded, active  person who instead of sitting on the couch with my boyfriend was getting out there. I don’t live in the suburbs, I live in a city a couple miles from my work, which is also very community-focused. I really don’t envision myself moving to the suburbs, driving through traffic to get to work, going to PTA meetings,  and living a rat race, but others find a way to make it work and really enjoy it and make a difference.

    I know self-absorbed single people and involved married people, though. It depends.

  15. 16

    Also – doesn’t it depend where you live? Evan was single in the LA area, which is monstrously sprawling and doesn’t have much of a sense of community. I live in a medium sized Midwestern city where there’s just naturally more of a closeknit community and, single or married, you you will probably find yourself getting involved and caring about it.

  16. 17

    Hmmm….I think that being single and currently unattached makes me more inclined to become involved in my community. When I first moved up north, I was in a relationship and spent most of my time outside of my community going on adventures with the ex. After we split, I meet someone else and spent most of my time doing things outside the community as well. Although this is a suburban town, I find living here to be relaxing and therapeutic because it is on the water and has more of a resort type feel (without the tourists). I do try to mix things up a bit by taking BART over to San Francisco though. There I go to the theater (recently saw “The Lion King”), take cooking classes, sailing and kayaking classes, attend comedy shows, and concerts. Napa and Sonoma are only 30 minutes away, so I’ll get out and visit the wineries. When the spirit hits me, I’ll go up to Tahoe or Reno for the weekend. The goal is to be involved in the bay area community with the goal of meeting a prospective partner while doing the things that I love.  

  17. 18

    Can we take PTA out of the equation? In the 15 years that I’ve had kids in the school system, I considered joining the PTA a few times, but then I’d look at the list of things they do and realize, that’s just not me. At least in my school district, PTA is all about selling stuff, decorating for the prom, selling stuff to raise money to buy decorations for the prom, you get the general idea. None of these things have anything to do with our children’s education.
    Can’t say much about the rest of the list, but from what I’ve heard about homeowners associations, they have very little to do with bettering the life of their community and a lot to do with making sure everyone’s siding is the same color and no one’s grass exceeds two inches in height. Ugh, I’ll pass.
    I’d count being on good terms with your neighbors and offering help when they need something as community involvement, and would agree that married couples probably have a better chance of being good at that, since they’re at home and or around their street more. As far as the other aspect of community involvement — volunteering — I’ve seen more of that done by singles, people with no children, and empty-nesters, just because they have more time and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and honestly I think one’s children should take priority, because, if their parents don’t take care of them, no one else will. I’m perfectly fine with the fact that, for most parents, volunteering comes second. I’ve also seen more volunteering done through churches and social organizations than within a residential neighborhood. But that’s my experience, which is limited.

  18. 19

    I do find that married couples with children are more rooted in their communities because it has strong benefits for their own families. It’s a win/win situation, but realistically, it’s still self serving.  
    Parental selflessness is very inwardly focused: all their resources go toward raising their offspring who carry their DNA.   It’s akin to all those religious groups in third world countries helping the poor- in the end, they just want to spread their faith.
    So, yes, communities are great… but don’t lose sight of why you participate..

  19. 20

    OK, I’ll bite.
    @ Essie #21
    “Parental selflessness is very inwardly focused: all their resources go toward raising their offspring who carry their DNA.”
    What would you rather see the parents do? I am a parent, I admit that most of my resources are currently going towards my offspring, and I would like to hear your suggestions on how to better allocate those resources without neglecting that offspring.
    I seriously want to hear an answer. I’ve seen this statement made on this forum before, and no one has ever said what they want the parents to do instead.

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