When I talk about failing institutions I don’t mean institutions of government or, perhaps it would be more accurate these days to say, I don’t just mean government. Our social institutions are failing us the same way horses are failing us as a transportation option.
For much of America’s history churches were integral to society. While in some parts of the country they still are, for a growing segment of the nation church is losing its value as both a personal and social institution. As science continues to challenge religious mythology many are finding religion and the church hold less meaning in their lives.
The modern world is also putting pressure on our concept of family, which stems more from a rural pattern of life than its urban counterpart. So much of our view of marriage and family stem from agrarian roots where a family was important as a source of labor, support and common defense. The church and family structure played right into our animal instincts to reproduce and give that genetic imperative context.
There has never been a time in earth’s history where it’s less necessary for human beings to reproduce. We don’t need children for labor, in fact children in the modern world add to our workload. We don’t need kids to tend the farm, take care of us when we’re sick or help defend the homestead from invaders. With breeding no longer a necessity for survival, combined with the easy availability of high quality birth control, for the first time in the history of man having children is completely optional. While people are likely to continue to find reasons to reproduce, it’s no longer a necessity for the individual or any even any substantive benefit to society.
Marriage is another institution taking it on the chops in modern society. Like having children, the institution of marriage is now entirely optional. Far from being the harbinger of societal decay that the religious right makes it out to be, I see the decline in marriage as a positive sign. We’ve managed to build a world where individuals are able to thrive and compete strictly on their own drive and merits. Marriage may be convenient for legal reasons (it was for my wife and I), it may even still be desirable for many and that’s fine. But marriage has, by and large, outlived its usefulness to society in general, with the possible exception of divorce lawyers. What marriage is not is the cornerstone of the family, with more than a quarter of kids overall being raised in single-parent households.
That begs the question of whether our institutions, at least those outside government, are really failing or we’ve just outgrown them? One question my wife and I frequently field as a childless couple is who is going to take care of us when we get older? My answer to that is to point out services like Google Express and others that deliver groceries right to your door and services like Uber and Lyft for transportation if we couldn’t drive. Not that we’d even need those services here, where transportation services for the elderly are already available. A home healthcare nurse is available for $40 an hour, which is a lot cheaper than college tuition, and the cleaning lady charges $20 an hour. With all the money we saved not having kids, we’re not going to have any problems affording elder care in our declining years. I also point out there are thousands of people who have families living in assisted living centers and nursing homes all over the state. Having a family didn’t help them when they got older; their kids might come and visit once or twice a year. Counting on family to take care of you when you can older turns out to be a bitter fantasy for many.
It’s okay to challenge the comfortable institutions we’ve been handed by society and tradition. It’s okay to shape your beliefs around what you can see and measure rather than hope for the beneficence of a random and sometimes perverse deity. You don’t have to do things just because your parents did them, you can pick and choose what works for you. Our institutions aren’t failing, the modern world is just giving us better options.