Will the post-COVID battle of the sexes end in a parade of horribles, or something more hopeful?

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

There will be no lasting solution until we figure out models of manhood and womanhood that can once again successfully unite

Before the advent of the coronavirus in the winter of 2020, the American family seemed to have passed from crisis into decadence. The crisis began in the 1960s, with the cultural revolutions that ushered in a period of breakage, division and dissolution for the two-parent model of family life that had previously prevailed.

But more recently the story changed, and instead of a crisis, the challenge was increasingly that fewer people were forming families at all.

The years of crisis encompassed several trends. First, the divorce revolution that began in the ‘60s and peaked in the 1980s, when almost half of marriages seemed to be ending in divorce. Second, the rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing, which climbed more slowly than divorce and peaked later, in the first decade of the 21st century. Finally, other related indicators of crisis — abortion rates, teenage pregnancies — which followed a similar pattern, with peaks in the early ’80s and ’90s, respectively.

In each case, though, after peaking, the indicators of crisis either stabilized or began to decline. By the Great Recession, only the rate of unmarried births was still rising — and in the 2010s that trend, too, reached a plateau and even dipped a bit, even as the other indicators were dropping more dramatically.

The apparent ebbing of the crisis was obviously good news. But it was achieved, in part, through a cultural shift away from family altogether, and into an age of singlehood and sterility — in which marriage rates continued to fall, birth rates plunged toward record lows, and there seemed to be a growing alienation between the sexes, such that not just commitment and childbearing but even dating and casual sex entered a period of recession.

This was the fundamental pattern when COVID-19 arrived on American shores. And in the pandemic year itself — or the first pandemic year, if you prefer to emphasize the negative — the patterns were accentuated. Marriages were understandably postponed, dating obviously suffered, and the birth dearth became a baby bust. On the other hand, already-existing families were more likely to stick together, with divorce rates dropping despite all the unique stresses of being confined much more than usual with your spouse.

So COVID-19 took both sterility and stability and deepened them — for a year. But what about the post-COVID world? What can we expect to happen to family life after the pandemic — whenever after finally arrives?

For the sake of speculation, let’s consider three possible futures, each of which would build on some trends and tendencies in our society at the moment.

Scenario 1: Decadence deepens

One possibility is what you might call the decadence-deepens scenario. In this future, we will look back and recognize that the pandemic took trends inimical to family life and turbocharged them. It closed down the real world, throwing everyone deeper into virtual spaces whose addictive embrace is one plausible factor driving the retreat from marriage, family, and even sex. It made dating all-but-impossible and parenting particularly difficult, not just with school closures but with the requirements that older relatives keep their distance from their children and grandchildren. It simply removed an extended period of normalcy from the rising generation’s life arc — six months for some, a year or even two for others — with the possible consequence that milestones delayed will become milestones foregone. An extra dose of postponement for a generation that was already postponing marriage and childbearing to the edge of its reproductive years could have ripple effects long after the pandemic is finished.

Then, too, the pandemic was particularly difficult for declining institutions that, for now, still play a crucial role in matchmaking alongside the steadily-growing online dating market. It isn’t just that institutions like churches and smaller colleges and various kinds of community organizations had to close temporarily. It’s that the consequences of those closures, for budgets and membership and morale, could hasten their dissolution over the next 10 or 20 years. So in the decadence-deepens scenario all kinds of real world forms of community, already weakened under pre-pandemic conditions, will have their decline accelerated — pushing people more and more into virtual spaces and virtual marriage markets that, on the evidence we have, aren’t doing a particularly good job of pairing men and women off.

Or alternatively, these forms of community will survive but with increasingly-skewed gender ratios, with the pandemic hastening the withdrawal of men, in particular, from various forms of organized social life. You can see this right now in college-enrollment statistics, where the pre-pandemic female advantage has suddenly become a yawning 60-40 split. In my decadence-deepens scenario, you would expect the same pattern to show up in other areas as well — with pandemic spending, however necessary, encouraging more working-class men especially to drop out of the workforce; with women returning to church in larger numbers than men; with the overall population of so-called NEETs — young people “not in education, employment, or training” — taking on an ever-more-male skew.

(T)he heightened experience of isolation could encourage a stronger sense of urgency among young people when they return to life in full — perhaps an impulse toward casual hooking-up at first ... but then also an urgency in forging friendships and relationships, creating households and homes, plunging into marriage and childrearing ahead of the schedule that pre-coronavirus life would have set for them.

At the end of this scenario lies an America that resembles countries on the Pacific Rim in certain ways — with men withdrawing from the dating market in alarming numbers, video games and virtual entertainments substituting more and more for social life, and birth rates dropping from our pre-pandemic fertility rate of 1.7 to 1.4 or even 1, the half-replacement-level rate of South Korea. But with the added twist that America has its own particular social pathologies — opioid and alcohol abuse above all — that would be inevitably interwoven with demographic decline. And here, too, it’s easy to imagine the pandemic as a dark accelerant, since we already have the numbers showing opioid deaths rising to new highs across the COVID-19 year.

So that’s a pretty dark picture: The coronavirus era as a gateway into more online, more alienated, more purposeless and more addicted forms of young-adult life, with wider gaps between the sexes adding to the problem, and fewer marriages and kids as the inevitable result.

Scenario 2: The wake-up call

Now let’s paint a brighter picture. Call it the wake-up-call scenario, where everything I’ve just described, everything grim that happened to young people and parents and families during the pandemic, becomes a reason to rebel against pre-pandemic trends and forge a different way of life.

In this scenario, the experience of being thrust deeper into online worlds against one’s will could lead to a willful rush back into physical reality once the threat of the coronavirus completely lifts. Take something like online pornography: There are studies suggesting that, not surprisingly, porn searches spiked during early lockdowns in Western countries. But a recent longitudinal study in the United States actually showed a decline in porn use over the longer term of the pandemic. So perhaps there is a kind of exhaustion with the virtual that sets it once virtual life becomes too dominant. And perhaps this could lead, over the longer run, to a revival of exactly the institutions and cultural habits that the decadence-deepens scenario envisions fated to permanent decline.

Similarly, the heightened experience of isolation could encourage a stronger sense of urgency among young people when they return to life in full — perhaps an impulse toward casual hooking-up at first, in the style of the “hot vaxx summer” that was promised before the delta variant came along, but then also an urgency in forging friendships and relationships, creating households and homes, plunging into marriage and childrearing ahead of the schedule that pre-coronavirus life would have set for them.

Right now, any surge in weddings or birth rates — and there is some evidence, already, of a fertility bounce-back — would mostly reflect people already on track toward wedlock or baby-making playing catch-up for the lost year. We presumably wouldn’t know for several years if there’s any general acceleration toward commitment.

But there is suggestive data in other places where this kind of wake-up-call might happen. For instance, the trauma of schools being closed or relocated exclusively toward Zoom has clearly led, in some cases, to greater parental engagement with their kids’ education: more homeschooling, more movement to private and parochial schools, more educational start-ups. If these patterns were sustained, instead of COVID simply collapsing institutions and overburdening parents, you could end up with newer and better institutions, new forms of community and collaboration, that make life better for families than in the pre-pandemic status quo.

Likewise, the pandemic-era movement toward greater remote work need not represent a greater imprisonment in the virtual if it also makes family life more livable — reducing commutes, increasing time at home, and making it possible for professionals to spread out geographically beyond high-cost, child-unfriendly megacities.

Even the spectre of workforce dropping-out, which in the decadence-deepens scenario is a signifier of alienation and stratification and male-female disharmony, could represent, in other cases, a healthy rebalancing for families. Some parents homebound during the pandemic may have discovered that they prefer spending more time with their kids, and they may adjust their post-pandemic lives accordingly, choosing part-time work or single-earner arrangements that reduce the workforce rolls but actually benefit family formation and stability.

Here the Japanese comparison might be reversed. Part of what makes East Asian societies so unfriendly to family formation is so-called “workism,” a culture that makes long hours in the office and professional advancement the measure of all things. So if the COVID experience leads to a partial retreat from American-style “workism,” that retreat might help halt our slide toward East Asian levels of fertility.

Scenario 3: Family polarization

That’s pure optimism, after the dose of pure pessimism to start. Now let’s consider a third scenario, one somewhere in between, some of whose contours you can see hinted at in “The Divided State of Our Unions,” a new report by Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, Jason Carroll and Lyman Stone, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Family Studies and The Wheatley Institution.

As that report’s title suggests, this is a scenario of family polarization, where decadence deepens for some and the wake-up call happens for others, and the division tracks already-existing divides in American culture — divides of ideology and religion, geography and social class.

It’s easy to imagine how this would play out. Parents who have the resources to respond to public school failure by opting into private school or starting new homeschooling co-ops will end up having more kids. Parents who had to juggle service-sector work with supervising kids on Zoom will not. Young professionals who suddenly find more options for where to live, thanks to telecommuting and geographic dispersal, will marry and start families sooner; young men who become even more detached from college or church or community will marry later or not at all. People who work for industries that have boomed during the pandemic — digital companies above all — will feel more secure in their future and make personal choices accordingly. People who work in the industries most shadowed by fears of infection or most disrupted by supply-chain problems, or in communities most affected by the COVID-era surge of drug use and overdoses, will make personal choices that reflect their sense of tenuousness or accelerating collapse.

Or just to focus on personal rather than social experience, it might be that people who already had children during the pandemic and feel like they proved their own capabilities and resilience will be more likely to have more children in the post-COVID-19 future than currently-childless people for whom parenthood seems much more challenging now, knowing what kind of disasters can fall upon that society, than it might have otherwise.

“The Divided State of the Unions” points to something like this division. The data in the report is obviously provisional, a snapshot of 2021, a not-yet-post-COVID-19 society, as opposed to a definite vision of the future. But it shows clear differences in how different segments of America have reacted to the pandemic.

Among single Americans making $100,000 or more a year, for instance, there was a sharp COVID-era increase in the desire to get married, and no significant change in the desire to have kids. Among single Americans making less than $50,000, on the other hand, there was a more modest increase in the desire to marry, and a sharp decrease in the desire for kids.

Among frequent churchgoers, the desire to marry rose and the desire for kids was about even — about as many people reporting wanting to have children more thanks to the pandemic experience as reported wanting to have them less. Among Americans who never or seldom attend church, the desire to marry held even, and about three times as many people report wanting kids less post-COVID-19 as report wanting them more.

It’s also possible to see a fertility divide opening wider within both political coalitions, with the rise of telecommuting and virtual work making it easier for affluent suburban liberals and exurban conservatives to have kids, while rural, white conservatives and inner-city, minority Democrats become, under somewhat different pressures, less likely to marry and start families or have an extra child.

Likewise, Republicans were about even in how many wanted kids more as opposed to less, while Democrats were more than twice as likely to report a diminished desire for kids. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a huge gender divide in responses, but low-income men stood out for their family-unfriendliness, with more than half of single men making less than $50,000 reporting that they didn’t want to have children.

Thus, for now, the report concludes,

Rich, Republican and especially Religious Americans emerged from COVID-19 with a relatively greater interest in marrying and having children. By contrast, the middle-class and the poor were relatively less interested in family formation. Likewise, Americans who identify as Democrats or Independents, and those with no religious ties were less interested in forming a family after COVID-19 hit.

The partisan valence of these trends, it should be noted, are not set in stone. Affluent and well-educated Americans are trending Democratic while downscale white men are trending Republican, so the fertility advantage for religious conservatives could be gradually offset by the tendency of higher-income white Americans to want more kids than their lower-income white peers.

It’s also possible to see a fertility divide opening wider within both political coalitions, with the rise of telecommuting and virtual work making it easier for affluent suburban liberals and exurban conservatives to have kids, while rural, white conservatives and inner-city, minority Democrats become — under somewhat different pressures — less likely to marry and start families or have an extra child.

A political and cultural response

However exactly these trends shake out, though, the strong possibility that COVID-19 will both accelerate the decline of childbearing and make family formation more class-bound requires a political and cultural response.

Politically, it should lend greater urgency to the debate over family policy currently taking place in Washington, D.C., and convert more politicians — Republicans, especially — to a recognition that the retreat from family life is one of our society’s most urgent challenges.

As for what kind of answer policy should offer, the sharpest debate right now is over whether support for families should be unconditional or linked to workforce participation, and COVID-19-era trends offer some ammunition for both sides. On the one hand, if we’re afraid of a future where men especially aren’t making headway, slipping away instead into drugs or video games or NEET life, then you can understand the fear of some conservatives that guaranteed, no-strings money for parents — meaning, in single-parent households, for mothers — could effectively subsidize this male indolence and absence, perpetuating generational cycles of poverty for the sake of a modest income boost.

On the other hand, the danger that inspired conservative welfare reformers 30 years ago — in which government subsidies contribute to skyrocketing out-of-wedlock and teenage fertility for the lower class — seems increasingly remote. Instead, today’s most notable trend is something new in our history: growing childlessness among the poor and least-educated, which promises some immediate benefits to poor people spared the expense of children, but at a potentially disastrous long-term cost, where singlehood and isolation define middle and old-age for populations that lack non-familial forms of social support as well.

In that context, risking some slight increase in out-of-wedlock births to encourage family formation overall might be worth it, even from a social conservative perspective — making the case for a straightforward family benefit stronger than it would have been in, say, 1996.

Personally, I suspect there is a path to compromise on this question, where a family benefit could be tied to work for parents of young children but offered without strings to parents of infants, allowing poor women to opt out of the workforce temporarily but not permanently.

But the most important thing is to prioritize the family as an important place for public investment — to convince liberals to care about the birth rate and the marriage rate as fundamental indicators of social health, and to persuade conservatives that policymaking can help build the foundation for any kind of domestic renaissance.

On the cultural side of things, meanwhile, the particular problem of low-income men points to the place where it seems most important to think anew about our situation — namely, the problem of the increasing social alienation of the sexes, which is linked to the fact that outside of a few elite professions, men are falling behind women everywhere, and that the social settings, which should ideally bring the sexes together, have increasingly skewed gender ratios, making pairing off, by definition, almost impossible for a growing pool of women.

This is a particularly important problem for college campuses, which, in a secularized society dominated by later marriage, remain one of the most important non-online places where young adults can fraternize their way toward relationships and marriage. In a world of 60-40 female-to-male sex ratios on campus, not only will that fraternization inevitably leave many women out in the cold, it will also encourage a kind of sexual entitlement among the men who do show up on campus, making the sexual marketplace more toxic and much less likely to lead to commitment, monogamy and happiness.

Ideally, in-person romantic cultures should avoid some of the problems that plague online dating — the winner-take-all tendency in who gets swipes and messages; the bias toward casual encounters and against commitment created by apps that need long-term customers, not happily married ex-users. An in-person romantic culture with almost two women for every man, on the other hand, will recreate some of those pathologies and add others of its own.

Obviously hitting a perfect gender ratio can’t be the primary goal of institutes of higher learning — or of other places, like churches, where similar dynamics may apply. But in a world of low fertility and sexual recession, the people in charge of important institutions need to reckon with the crucial role they play in socialization and mating, and the danger of socialization that leads to alienation of the sexes from one another instead.

Meanwhile, the wider culture needs to reckon with the question of whether it’s possible to invert the pre-1960s dynamic where men with more education regularly married women with less. Assuming, especially, that some of the men avoiding college are doing so for good economic reasons and finding more employment and money in skilled trades, is there a way to successfully bring such men together with women who have gone through the socialization patterns of a college education? (The fact that the latest best-selling Sally Rooney novel imagines a romance between a female novelist who conspicuously resembles the author and a warehouse worker is, at the very least, an interesting cultural data point.)

Lurking behind all these issues is the biggest question of all: What does a healthy masculinity look like after the sexual revolution, de-industrialization, secularization, #MeToo, and so many other transformations? And no less important, what kind of healthy femininity could evolve to match with it?

That question has been sharpened by the COVID-19 era, and I don’t see anything in the events of the last two years that suggests any certain answer. But if you want to solve the decadence of the American family, the alienation of the sexes is the crucial underlying problem, and there will be no lasting solution until we figure out models of manhood and womanhood that can once again successfully unite.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of “The Decadent Society: America Before and After the Pandemic,” and “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”

Editor’s Note: This essay is an updated version of a presentation the author gave at the University of Virginia in September 2021 and was first published by the Institute for Family Studies. It’s republished here with permission.