In “Why Do People Become Modern? A Darwinian Explanation,” an essay published in 2009, the biologists Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson offer a useful framework. In premodern societies, virtually all social networks are kin-based. Individuals have an interest in encouraging close relatives to reproduce, as relatives share some portion of their genetic inheritance, and so norms and values geared toward producing offspring early and often dominate those that promote the pursuit of other life goals. But as individuals transition from kin-based social networks to non-kin-based social networks in which most of the people who shape and influence their lives don’t necessarily have an interest in their reproductive success, different norms and values come to the fore.
If Newson and Richerson are right, we should expect that individuals in societies experiencing rapid economic growth and urbanization will shift from wanting large families and taking their obligations to extended family members very seriously to prioritizing self-improvement and wanting much smaller families. The advent of reliable birth control, the fact that adults are less likely to depend on children as a source of income and old-age support, and the fact that we have more time and resources to pursue self-improvement have all contributed to this shift.
And this is roughly what has been happening around the world, from the U.S. to South Korea to the emerging societies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Yet the weakening of kin-based social networks will unfold differently in different social classes. Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has urged policymakers to focus on what he calls “mobility inequality,” i.e., the fact that more-skilled workers are far likelier to be geographically mobile than less-skilled workers. Moretti argues that if less-skilled workers were more able or more willing to move, income differences might shrink as the less-skilled settled in higher-productivity regions where firms pay higher wages. To this end, he calls for reforming unemployment insurance and pursuing other measures to facilitate geographic mobility. One could say that Moretti wants less-skilled workers to become as “modern” as skilled workers, who are more likely to choose their home on the basis of economic opportunity and high-quality amenities than from a sense of inherited obligation.
The problem, however, is that while some people are relatively good at adapting to new environments and forming new attachments, others need stability and durable relationships. A knowledge-intensive economy that privileges the most footloose, rootless individuals will necessarily be challenging for those who aren’t suited to a life of constant change. Indeed, this difference in proclivities can occur within families, creating additional strains.
Historically, extended kinship groups managed internal tensions out of necessity, as family members had no choice but to rely on one another. Today, family members increasingly have the option to go their separate ways, culturally and geographically. Yet the household formations that result — the small families, the single adults living alone — are far more vulnerable to economic and social disruption. To be as productive as we can be, we have to uproot ourselves. But in doing so, we reduce the number of people we can rely on in a time of crisis.
And this ongoing erosion of stable, solid attachments may well contribute to mental illness, substance abuse, and other maladies that can drag down middle-income families or keep low-income families from ever achieving some modicum of economic self-reliance. Efforts to expand the welfare state are designed to mitigate some of the damage that flows from these phenomena. It is not clear, however, that they can address the root cause.
One view, common among social scientists who study the evolution of family life, is that we should want all Americans to live like the college-educated minority, who appear to have reconciled the demands of mobility and adaptability in a knowledge-intensive economy with the need for strong attachments. This is one of the implicit motivations behind expanding access to higher education, a project that in recent years has yielded massive increases in student-loan debt but only modest increases in college-completion rates.
Another answer is that we ought to find ways to foster a more rooted and stable society, one in which extended kinship groups can flourish. This won’t be easy, and it can’t be accomplished solely via the instruments of law or policy. It will also require a renewed focus on the moral foundations of our economy. While left-liberals champion measures such as increased social transfers and greater public-education spending, conservatives might champion measures such as an increase in the child tax credit and more investment in programs designed to encourage work and, if necessary, enforce work requirements. The virtue of the latter approach is not that it is cheaper, because the truth is that it might be very expensive. Rather, it is that the latter approach has the potential to help all Americans take responsibility for their own lives and their own families.