The Lost Boys

Posted on November 3, 2011 by

W. Brad Wilcox, in touting his recently released study The Sustainable Demographic Dividend, describes what should be an obvious-to-all impact of the decline in marriage on society in general and men in particular:

[W]e know that adults are more likely to behave responsibly, from a financial perspective, when they get and stay married. We also know that children in the U.S. are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and be gainfully employed when they are raised in an intact, married family. Finally, men work harder, work smarter, and work longer hours after they get married. This translates into a marriage premium of about 19 percent for men in the United States. Thus, marriage seems to draw men into a higher level of engagement in the economy. [emphasis mine]

So, the fact that the marriage rate has fallen by about 50 percent since 1970, and that about half of all American children will now spend time outside of an intact, married family, would seem to be of some consequence for the health of the American economy.

I think Prof Wilcox understates his case. Marriage rates are decreasing, and this fact has a hugely significant impact, not only individual men, but on women and children and the society as a whole. For in failing to make durable marriage (and therefore failing protect his fragile social bond to his children) a realistic expectation for all American men, not just a mere plurality, our culture has forfeited the potential wealth and investment that a body of enfranchised men provide to their families, their communities, and to the culture as a whole. This failure makes for martially/reproductively (but not, sadly, sexually) cautious men and women and gives us both the Xbox-addicted SYM and the shopaholic slouching-toward-a-nunnery SYF. Neither are the sort of core population one wants to have if one is trying to sustain a teetering welfare-warfare state. Even if the SYM/SYF phase is temporary, say, an arrested development lasting 15 to 20 years or so, consider the lost potential wealth represented by that two-decade long “pause”. Indeed, an entire generation could be born and matriculated in the time it takes for SYMs and SYFs to be a lot less “S” and “Y” and more married with children…their failure to launch flattens the population growth from exponential to linear at best.

It is these “lost boys” that should be on the radar of every demographer, sociologist, and economist, for the so-called “demographic dividend” is a misnomer…it is more like a “demographic sugar high”, with the attendant insulin “bust” a generation later. Unfortunately for us in the quasi-socialist West, modern welfare states are predicated upon a pyramid-shaped population distribution.  The barely replacement-level fertility that typifies prosperous modern societies creates at best a rectangular population distribution, if not an inverted pyramid-shaped distribution, with entire age cohorts merely shriveled shadows of their forebears. Lost boys, with their higher rates of crime, lower productivity, greater diversion of time and energy into leisure activities, and decreased civic engagement, deprive the society of their excess productivity and narrow this distribution even more, meaning the inverted pyramid is more akin to a rhombus teetering atop a thin straw.

Marriage is the seminal event marking the start of a new family and, as researchers are “starting” to discover, the health of marriage has everything to do with the health of the economy. All told, the resistance of our society in realizing and internalizing this lesson permits the ranks of the Lost Boys to swell with otherwise perfectly good men, the sort that would make up the beta and delta providers in a social scheme that affords these men wives, and threatens societal sustainability over the long haul.

Something needs to change from the present configuration, and we must re-structure incentives such that the beta and delta providers-to-be have an opportunity to assortatively pair off, marry, and remain married with something that resembles permanence. Our present scheme–divesting a great many beta and delta providers from the family unit and “recapturing” their wealth on the back end through heavy taxation and compulsory labor–doesn’t seem to sufficiently solve the problem and only serves to alienate them and their peers from the marriage institution.