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.

Join our conversation (44 Comments).
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  1. 21

    I live in a major metropolitan area. I own a condo, have been on the board of directors for many years, along with people both married and single, none of whom have children. When I’ve done volunteer political work, the mix seemed the same. The idea that all single people do is date, consume, and travel is ridiculously myopic. I know plenty of married couples with kids who only spend time each other or with other families with kids, work all the time, buy stuff tor their children, and have little community involvement, especially in more isolated suburban areas.
    Brooks himself says, “We are inevitably entering a world in which more people search for different ways to attach”, outside of the traditional family model. There is more than one way to create family and and a sense of community today, whether you are married with kids or single.

  2. 22

    I think you are misunderstanding my point as a non parent.
    The only thing parents should do differently is stop defining themselves as “selfless” and those who choose not to have children as “selfish”.
    It’s natural and normal to sacrifice for you children. Just be honest that you expect to reap some benefits as well: a legacy, love,   sense of purpose, etc.. etc…
    Though I have to say that it’s a trick of nature. The very hard work of parenting is often not realized until after the fact.

  3. 23

    I like Karl S’ point – community is many things. I’m single, I   own a home, I know my neighbors, particularly liquor store neighbor/best friend, I love my city, land I love my ‘hood, but I think there is something different in the way children connect you to a community, whether it is married with children, or single with children.   We, partnered, married, and singles, singles, partners, and marrieds with children,   are all just differently connected to our respective communities.   Love your blog!


  4. 24

    Interesting article but I find it more about how capitalist societies are evolving, and the positives/negatives of individualism, than about ones involvement in a   community, beside trying to sell marriage with the argument that married people are more involved in their community.
    I’m not surprised to see this argument being brought up by a man. Like most men he probably started to feel more interested and connected to his local community as he grew roots in a neighborhood and started looking at the world through his children’s eyes. I think it’s more common from men than for women to become more interested in their communities when they become homeowners and parents. Suddenly there is a reason to get out of themselves and their own immediate self-gratification.
    However I do not believe that it’s equally true for most women. I insist of “most” as it’s not 100% gender-biaised. To me, investing in my community means giving selfless energy towards its well-being, especially to its underpriviledged members. In the last few years I’ve been getting to know and serving the larger community that is so convenient to foget: homeless, at risk youth, mental health patients, low-income single parents, eldery, etc. And obviously the reason why I have had time to consistently serve the undeserved members of my community is because I am SINGLE. No partner, no kids, being young and healthy, having my basic needs met allow me to give a lot of energy for free. When/if I get married I will have LESS time for all of this, and will have to redistribute my time/energy differently. I will invest myself more in the part of the community that will directly benefit my husband/family by joining the “community-minded” married folks who focus on returning favors between neighbors and checking on ones kids’ teachers. It’s all good as well, but it’s much self-serving.
    My boyfriend is following a very different path: like most single men, he’s spent his single time focusing on his education, career, fun activities, dating here and there, and beside one year of volunteering right out of college, he has given nothing back to his community. He is however getting inspired by my life choices and I can foresee him becoming more of an Evan or David Brooks when he settles down somewhere for the longer term. In marriage, he would become more involved than he currently is while I would become less involved than my singlehood allows me to.
    It reminds me a male acquaintance with whom I was talking years ago about reaching out to neighbors. He told me point blank that he was not going to invest in these relationships given that he was renting and planning on moving out a year or two later. It was of no interest to him, regardless of his neighbors’ needs. Now that he is doing the suburban thing with a wife, two kids, two cars, etc, I bet that he is “investing in his neighbors” as we speak. It’s nice, but it’s not at all selfless and to me it’s not a real investment in the community. It’s an investment in his sub-community, made of people of the same status with the same interests.
    Basically I disagree with correlating marriage and an increased investment in the community, at least for women. However I do support the family unit and strongly believe that if we want to encourage the family model in the building of stronger and healthier communities, we are going to have to focus on moral education in schools. There are just too few people able to build and maintain a solid, healthy, and happy marriage these days…

  5. 25
    sandra b

    J. White of Seattle wrote:
    “Wow. Mr. Brooks is recommending social engineering as an antidote to an excess of personal choice, while at the same time suggesting it might be okay to investigate “emerging commitment devices.” No wonder he’s a Republican apostate.Conservatives claim to be huge fans of individual liberty–but apparently that doesn’t apply to the liberty to live alone, childless, or church-less. If family values and social ties don’t come naturally any more, then let’s legislate ’em, dammit! Heaven forbid that we should keep our options open.In reality, our increasingly diverse, mobile, wired, and atomized society is a direct result of the unfettered growth of capitalism. Emile Durkheim wrote on this over a century ago, positing that the “mechanical solidarity” of family-based societies is replaced by “organic solidarity” as population increases, the division of labor grows ever more complex, and we rely increasingly more on strangers than on kin. Durkheim didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing–just a step in the evolution of cultures.A complex economy demands and rewards individualism, not family ties. That’s the ultimate irony of combining economic and social conservatism: one works against the other. Which is why otherwise intelligent people like David Brooks twist themselves into these amazing contortions when they try to have it both ways.”

    “Twisted”, indeed.  
    Personally, I don’t understand why each individual in this country is not enabled by one set of fair rules.
    (IMHO) Gays should be allowed the opportunity to experience the same misery of other married couples if they so choose. No one should get special treatment or tax incentives to have children – or everyone should get them; families, singles, marrieds, would all get the same room rates, gym membership fees, etc.   Why am I, a single childless, caring for aged parents female   xpected to subsidize   these perks for multi-child, married couples? Where’s my subsidy for not being a strain on society?

  6. 26
    sandra b

    @helen 15 – Totally!

  7. 27

    Thanks, Evan and sandra b. sandra, you are so right that economic and social convervatism are fundamentally opposed to each other. One depends upon individual liberties; the other would seek to suppress them.

    Essie 24: which parents are you referring to who call ourselves selfless and  childfree individuals selfish? As a mother, I certainly don’t beileve this, and  haven’t seen Goldie stating anything of the sort, either. If you are referring to David Brooks, I’m not sure that he IS a parent, although he is married.   

  8. 28

    @Helen – 15, EMK – 19

    Helen, even though Brooks didn’t cite a source for what you considered unfounded connections, they make sense in light of developmental theory.   More specifically, through the lens of Ecological Systems Theory, Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed how different layers of social networks influence a child’s development.   I think it is significant in terms of Brooks’ article because it basically makes the connection that children need positive influences at all social levels.   It’s not just a child with his/her parents on an island.   As Hilary Clinton reminded us, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

    …Which is why it is all the more strange that this message is coming from David Brooks.   Nonetheless, I think it is a valid one.

    More information on Ecological Systems Theory and Urie Bronfenbrenner:  

    @Essie – 21

    “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.”

    Respectfully, I have to disagree and assert that this is a blanket generalization.   While there are probably some religious groups who are out to gain converts, there are also a lot of very sincere people in religious circles who feel compassion for others as as part of their love for their Creator.   Either way, if they are actually helping and not coercing anyone to believe one thing or another, then good for them.   They are doing good work that would otherwise be left undone, imo.

  9. 29
    Valley Forge Lady

    Interesting article from David Brooks since he grew up in the town where I live.   I know the culture where he got his start.

    I am a single empty nester parent.   Business owner, Chamber of Commerce, regular church attender, work  with the homeless for over 20 years, stay fit.   Engaged on many levels.

    Where are the single men who even come close to my  level of engagement?   Every day I am told  by men and women  that I am a catch.   I soldier on with on line dating, going on dates with a smile and size 4 Brazilian jeans.   Care to guess how many 2nd dates I  have?

    You better believe I an engaged in the community or I would go out my mind.   Why are so few men available in these venues?   The single men seem be living with a candy store attitude about women  since there are so many choices.

    Self absorbed, self centered, narcissstic people have a very hard time with committment…..but they get lonely, horney, and will occasionally ask me out.   I have one guy who has been staying in touch for over 10 years.   Needless, to stay he is kept at arm’s length.  

    After reading  this piece….am I to think that all the good guys are  taken….and I am doomed to hanging out with my girl friends?

    David Brooks do you have any single  guy friends who think like you do?   I know lots of great single women who are in the Market for a great normal guy!

  10. 30

    David brooks does have children — he’s written about this before.   As for the single people argument, it’s an extension of another argument he’s made before about his confusion about changing American identity under a global society which he also equates with lack of cohesive national identity, collective understanding, and future, prosperity.   Unfortunately as a white, upper middle class man, it appears that he’s experiencing nostalgia while trying to convince himself that these values cohere with how Republicans need to adapt to an electorate he obviously doesn’t have any real contact with or understand.

    samdra b: arguments have been made that parents spend a lot of time and money   to produce productive citizens for our society, far in excess of the breaks that they currently receive.   Your future prosperity and social base, even if you do not have children, is dependent on these future workers and producers.   These are not perks or subsidies for the job of having children but investment in how a capitalist society works.

  11. 31

    While I love David Brooks (I’m an all-around moderate) I’m getting a bit tired of what seems to be a constant singles-vs-married battle. Even with all of the possible lifestyle differences, we’re still all human beings who crave happiness and connection.  

    The reality of post-industrial society seems to be increasing numbers of people who are single by choice. That’s what it is. You can’t force people to marry and have kids (unless you lived in Ceaucescu’s Romanis), and to a lot of people, there are some compelling benefits to being single. (I’ll let Bella DePaulo enumerate).

    In my case, I had a lot more time and energy for community involvement when I was single. My first marriage was incredibly draining, and all of my time and energy went to work and a bi-polar husband. Having children probably would have sent me off the deep end, not to more PTA meetings.

    After being widowed, I had a lot more time on my hands, and a lot more desire for connection. I served on the boards of two local arts organizations and did a lot of volunteer work for my church. To be honest, the vast majority of my fellow volunteers were single and/or retired. We were always trying to reel in the married-with-kids crowd but they were too busy, which seemed entirely reasonable to me.  

    I guess drawing lines in the sand and setting up polarized situations is good for readership, but I question how good it is for society. We would be better served by realizing that everyone -no matter their marital state- has something valuable to contribute, and encourage contribution, rather than being mad that the “other side” isn’t doing enough.

    If there’s a problem with community in this country, I believe it has far more to do with individualism and inability to delay gratification (definitely agree with Brooks on this), than it does with marital/child status.  

  12. 32

    @c  32
    You dare to explain these perks as an investment opportunity? You are joking? Or are you a former mortgage lender, ex- Enron /Bain executive, or maybe you have a bridge for sale?  Building better roads and public transportation is an investment in our future.
    How about this: Let’s invest in better schools better teacher ratios and physical education -to start. Let’s teach our children how to relate to each   other (one on one and in groups); how to handle money personally and how to unite to pass the laws and directives that support our goals (hopefully more humanitarian than the current  narcissistic  models.)And then, after “investing in these children, let’s hold them accountable to our broadened  curriculum  by requiring them to invest back into the communities and society that enabled their success. Let me not continue….And to clarify my intention about my ending comments in post #27- I spoke in jest, (but the truth..)

    If I ruled the world I would ask for accountability. And if my return on investment would that future generations reap the rewards of a society needing less to incarcerate (and all that entails in financial and human waste,) in a more rational, functional and kind society, I would consider that a proper return of investment.

    Note: This is a very well spoken and intelligent forum – Thanks, Evan!

  13. 33

    Why is it a problem to Brooks that some people want to keep their options open?   Why does he feel entitled to advocate using the coercive power of the state to ‘induce’ them to create families when they themselves don’t see that as being in their best interest?   What is so threatening to him about those who make personal choices different than his own?   Or did he not make his choice on a selfish basis, and rather as a sacrifice to the ‘society’.   How flattering and inspiring to his wife and kids.   And the ‘community’.  
    Regardless of whether a family would bring happiness to an individual it is up to that individual to make that choice when he sees that as being true.   It is not up to ‘society’ to force such a commitment on him or guilt him into it with altruistic rhetoric about god, family, country.
    Community is nothing but a collection of individuals.   And i don’t think it is any more correct to try to dictate to people that certain ‘selfless’ ways of interaction with others is morally superior to other forms of interaction and a sense of community, than it is to say that marriage and children as a lifestyle is superior to being single.   There are thousands of ways to better one’s own life and others.  
    I think that many people mindlessly get married and have kids under societal conformity. That is bad for themselves and others. That this is changing should be celebrated, not decried. Parents, as well as singles and childless couples should do what will make them happy as individuals.   Then they should interact with others and form communities as suits them.   Let’s skip the social engineering and moralizing!

  14. 34

    Helen @29
    Often, “being more connected to your community as a married person with children” implies that it’s a somehow better than being single and keeping your options open.   I pay my share of taxes that I’m sure goes to public education, without reaping any of the benefits. I have a community of like minded single/ childfree individuals who own businesses that are part of the community. Most people have jobs that contribute to their communities.   Yes, I’d love to get married and have children. I would then participate in the community in different ways.  
    you are right; many in religious communities help others because they are kind, compassionate people.   Apologies for the blanket statement. But I still think there is some underlying motive to convert.

  15. 35
    Karl R

    David Brooks said: (original post)
    “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 was rereading a section of For Better last night. I ran across a study that directly contradicted Brooks assertions. Singles were more likely to be involved in political groups. They were more likely to be involved in groups that involved their interests. They spent more time time interacting with their neighbors. They called their parents more often.

    “Connection” is a very subjective term. But when it comes to tangible, measurable criteria, the singles  the singles were more connected to their communities than  the married couples … especially the married couples with kids.

    If I had to guess, I’d say it’s due to the singles having more available time.

  16. 36

    I’m not sure what post exactly but I definitely agree that parents are too focused on their children to be able to be properly involved with their community. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that as someone was challenging this assertion. As someone who is single, I have had the time to be involved with my community. I’m involved with various charity/volunteer work, am in a book group and many other outward focused activities. I think a good parent should be involved with their children and the ‘evolved’ ones are the ones that take them on volunteer activities and help expose their children to those in need such as going to a soup kitchen or feeding the homeless. The danger parents face is that they just focus on shuttling their children from hobbies like dance or hockey or whatever. They just teach the kid to be selfish and focus on themselves. It’s really up to the parent to teach their children community involvement and there are many ways to do this. The sad truth is most parents don’t and this is where I agree with one of the posters who believe parents are inward focus. If a parent can awaken in their child the idea that there are people in need and that we can do small acts to make the better place, then that is how parents can be involved with the community. Otherwise they are not. having kids alone doesn’t make you engaged with your community. I’m already engaged in my community and I do think singles do more simply because we probably have more free time.

  17. 37

    I’ll hazard a guess and say that since you’re a matchmaker you’re trying to drum up business with this particular piece.   You’re alluding to the ridiculous idea that as a married person you will care more about your community than if you were single.   It’s the kind of elitist attitude from SOME married people that think this way that I find it off putting.  
    Married people are not superior to singles.   And while there are some married folks that are civic minded, there are also a whole lot of them that due to family obligations don’t have time to do anything outside of the home. You are undermining and diminishing the good work that MANY single people get involved in, myself included. If as a single man, you did not get involved in many things that was your personal experience.   It’s ignorant to generalize the entire single population as a group that does the same things as you.   We’re not all like that.

  18. 38

    Aww.   Should have anticipated there being another Amelia ’round these parts.   I’ll be Amelia2.0 from now on. LOL
    I get where caring people are more likely to participate in community stuff as a couple, and care less about selfish endeavours, especially with kids that are school age.  
    However, I emphasize the word caring.   I think couples participate more if they were already fundamentally  caring people in the first place.   Although I realize this is not exactly what is being said in this blog post,  I do  have to strongly agree with the folks here who have said that  singledom  does not correlate well  with the likelihood of  caring jack for  the community.  I’m also as godless as they come, yet I still  make the time, energy, and money to donate time/blood/money  to the Red Cross or help out at an animal shelter as a single.   Even while dating I make the time.   I also know that my measly contributions pale in comparison to some of the work my friends and acquaintences in school got involved in as singles.   I think there is something to be said for the amount of time and energy  singlehood affords for deeper community involvement.   But again, that involvement depends more on how much fundamentally a person gives a crap about others  in the first place.

  19. 39

    I am single and I have a house in the suburbs. I do eveything on my own and pay my bills. Single is not a choice and being 42, friends have come and go in my life with a few deep brojen hearts. Being single you need to be extra strong to get thru life. When I hear couples   say that I have all the time in the world to play I cringe. They have no idea. Again, I don’t get my husband to plow my driveway when I am on a buisness trip and so on.. even my married neighbors around don’t help when they no that I am a single flight attendant that might be coming home at 2 am after that storm . ( finally I found I company that comes ploy)

    We need single people and in fact society and communities benefits from them without being thankful,   instead we make them feel like they don’t matter .

    Single people will spend time helping with volonteering. .. we are those who help the soup kitchens, we are the ones that take care of the elderly or older parents, we are the friends of married people who will listen to your family issues, we are even the ones that will plow your driveway without tellibg you, we are there to participate in social events, in cleaning the cities with bare hands on that day of the year, we will visit the sick and bringing them comfort by being there, we will participate in charities or better, we will organize them. We might be a big brother or big sister to someone… list goes on. Then again, not one day in the year we celebrate them because of there unselfish time giving to others . We constantly try to figure out what is wrong with them for being single yet no one has the solution for helping us meeting the right person.

      1. 39.1.1

        I did not!   Lol I never leave comments because my English is so bad.. English is not my language. Sometimes I don’t express myself right in english.

        Last night I was on Facebook too long,   something I should not be on and go back to my yoga!   ðŸ˜‰

  20. 40

    Does it matter if someone is connected to the community? As long as they aren’t infringing upon another’s right to purse happiness, why worry about stuff like this?

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