America is the most talented nation in history. It must be. To prove it, all you have to do is turn on your television and look at all the programs dedicated to unearthing and celebrating that talent: America’s Got Talent, The Voice, and, of course, American Idol — plus many more besides.
And now New York Times columnist David Brooks is getting into the act. No, he hasn’t suddenly developed a penchant for ballroom dancing or crooning a love song before the cameras. But Brooks has become a cheerleader for the never-ending quest of Americans to discover their “talent,” even if doing so undermines the quiet virtues, connections, and disciplines that made this country great.
“People want more space to develop their own individual talents,” Brooks writes in an article headlined “The Talent Society.” “They want more flexibility to explore their own interests and develop their own identities, lifestyles and capacities. They are more impatient with situations that they find stifling.”
Brooks, referring to the new book Going Solo, cites a number of statistics that illustrate this trend, among them: more than half of adults are single; over half of all births to a mother who is under age 30 occur among single women; and 28 percent of households consist of single adults. “Ozzie and Harriet” has been turned into “Ozzie or Harriet.”
Brooks cites a number of factors: affluence, feminism, the information revolution, and skepticism about marriage and religious groups. On balance, Brooks says, that the change is largely good, at least for “the ambitious and the gifted.”
“People are less likely to be trapped in bad marriages and bad situations,” he notes. “They move from network to network, depending on their individual needs at the moment.”
In other words, those with “talent” will do fine in this new, unmoored reality. But for those with less social capital, it’s a different story.
“On the other hand,” Brooks admits, “people who lack social capital are more likely to fall through the cracks. It takes effort, organization and a certain set of skills to surf these new, protean social networks. People who are unable to make the effort or lack social capital are more likely to be alone.”
And the ranks of the alone, on both sides of the “talent” line, are growing rapidly. A 2006 study, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” showed that we are not only less committed to marriage; we’re also less committed to relationships in general. The study reported a “remarkable drop” in the size of people's core network of confidants — those with whom they could talk about important matters.
In 1985, the average American had three close friends. That number had fallen to two by 2004. In the same span, those reporting no confidants at all jumped from 10 percent to 25 percent. And the share of Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent.
Yet those with “talent” don’t seem to mind their more solitary existence. “Over all,” Brooks says, “we’ve made life richer for the people who have the social capital to create their own worlds.” But he admits, “We’ve also made it harder for the people who don’t — especially poorer children.”
Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, notes, “Over the past 50 years, [our] common civic culture has unraveled.” The marriage rate among the white working class has plunged, from 84 percent in 1960 to just 48 percent two years ago. Not surprisingly, this group has experienced an alarming increase in out-of-wedlock births, from 6 percent in 1970 to 44 percent in 2008. This is alarming because of the many well-documented harmful effects to children born to unmarried parents, who experience a divorce, or who have no father present.
And indisputably those who get and stay married do better economically, socially, and even physically than those who do not. According to numerous studies, marriage and religious commitment are closely associated with a plethora of benefits. “One of the strongest, most consistent benefits of marriage is better physical health and its consequence, longer life,” according to “The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis,” a 2009 study by Linda J. Waite and Evelyn L. Lehrer. “Married people are less likely than unmarried people to suffer from long-term illness or disability …, and they have better survival rates for some illnesses. … They have fewer physical problems and a lower risk of death from various causes, especially those with a behavioral component.”
Marriage also improves people’s economic prospects. Waite and Lehrer state, “A large body of literature documents that married men earn higher wages than their single counterparts. This differential, known as the ‘marriage premium,’ is sizable.”
With Social Security and Medicare careening toward insolvency and the national debt nearing $16 trillion, it is worth asking how our nation will pay its bills without households characterized by strong marriages and families, with lots of healthy and productive children.
Yet Brooks counsels acceptance of a two-tiered society that provides benefits largely to unattached people with “talent,” while he admits that those “without those advantages would probably be better off if we could build new versions of the settled, stable and thick arrangements we’ve left behind.”
We don’t need “new versions of the settled, stable and thick arrangements we’ve left behind.” We just need a renewed commitment, led by the church, to the old ones.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: February 23, 2012