Most mornings, after my workout, I sit on a barstool and drink my fruit smoothie while reading the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the Financial Times (FT). I like to compare American and British views on current issues, politics, and business. I glance through the headlines for snippets of interesting news that I want to read, then browse the editorial opinions for balanced, thought-provoking writings. I always read Peggy Noonan’s Friday opinion as she exposes truths and falsehoods, leaving few untouched. She writes consistently balanced and passionate opinions that counter our polarized culture.
One of the FT’s opinion writers who I occasionally read is Janan Ganesh, a 40-year-old British journalist, author, and political commentator. I normally find his writings to be more verbal jousting than substantive. This is common in the UK where verbosity is considered cleverness. Americans tilt towards practice while the British are solidly on the side of theory. Both theory and practice are needed to solve complex problems.
A few weeks ago, I glanced through the FT opinions and Ganesh’s latest opinion looked interesting: Don’t sweat the decline of marriage: It is not about economics, it is about freedom and selfhood (September 23, 2022). After I read it, I read it again. It was on my mind that morning, so I decided to read it to my wife at lunch. I don’t usually spend this much time thinking about editorial writings unless they contain a subject that interests me or relates to my current research topic. But this article seemed to have touched a nerve.
Ganesh is at the apex of individualism, the placement of self over community. It was startling to read about his totality of selfhood. The opinion was headed with an older black-and-white picture of a man sitting outside a café reading a book — alone. All the other café chairs are empty. This picture reflected the content of his opinion.
Ganesh begins by stating that in September 2012, when he was thirty years old, he decided not to attend any more weddings. His reasoning was that weddings took time away from his freedom, “the books unread, the restaurants untried, the continental trips not taken on a Friday-night whim.” Community gatherings to celebrate a couple’s desire to share their love with family and friends constricted his freedom and he admits it: “I am an odd case of individualism.”
Statistics show that marriages are in decline. While the US and UK populations have increased, the number of marriages is 50% of the number in 1972. What the official marriage data doesn’t show is the number of co-habitations, couples living together in common-law marriage. During my youth, few couples lived together. However, sexual relations prior to marriage were becoming more common. As an older minister recently stated to a group of men discussing morality: “Society just didn’t see it back then.” Over the past three decades, the societal stigma attached to unmarried couples living together has declined. Today, many pastors and parents are just happy that couples eventually marry, especially before children are born.
Ganesh downplays economic reasons for the decline in marriage: “Family decline persists through asset boom and asset bust, from South Korea to Bolivia.” He places the decline on personal freedom: “Free to choose — de facto, not just de jure — people want to do it all later, if ever. These are our revealed preferences.” Raising a child makes it difficult to travel, socialize, or stimulate the mind, “things obstructed by the pram in the hallway.” He choses to associate with his political tribe and gets his community fix by the collective community watching the Queen’s casket pass by. What is the good of family “who will look after you when you get old? In the rich world, at least, it is an impoverished account of why people embrace domesticity.”
His individualism struck me to the core this week. My cousin, the oldest of my 10 cousins, is in hospice with a brain tumor. He never married nor had children, but he was surrounded by family and attended many weddings, graduations, and family gatherings. My cousin chose singleness, but he also chose community and faith. He cared for others before his cancer; now his family cares for him as he declines.
I sit alone this week in our Canadian condo. My wife traveled back to Austin, then drove to Missouri to gather with family to celebrate her mother’s birthday. I decided to remain in Canada for utilitarian reasons: to complete maintenance projects, prepare for winter, and work on my book. I have my freedom to read, try new restaurants, and explore. The problem is that I would rather do these things with someone I intimately know: my wife. Sitting alone in a restaurant or curled up alone with a book for two weeks is … lonely. My checklist items are getting smaller at the expense of my happiness with a loved one. “Utilitarian” can be boring while community brightens my day.
Marriage, children, and family do take time and can be stressful. Balancing work and family moves the freedom needle from individualism towards community. Ganesh has his individualism because his parents gave up some their individualism to raise him. He did not become what he is today solely by himself. He would be speaking German today (post-WWII) if the UK generations before Ganesh had been individualistic. And when Ganesh gets old and relies on British public facilities to take care of him, it will be paid for by the generations born after him.
Contractual marriage is in decline, but I would marry again in a heartbeat. Having loved deeply over many years is so rewarding. Raising my two children was difficult, but I would gladly do it again and park the pram in the hallway (perhaps better the second time around!). Attending a wedding is a privilege, not a burden. It is in community that individuals find meaning and purpose. Humans are communal and develop within community. My family grieves my cousin’s sickness because he is so loved and so loves his family. To grieve deeply is comforting because we are loved and have loved deeply. Reading the 705 comments on Ganesh’s opinion gave me hope because so many disagreed with him. A picture full of people is so much more colorful than that black-and-white picture of a single man reading alone.